Depression is a debilitating condition. It can take many different forms, but they all share the same ruleset: no matter how hard someone tries, just ‘cheering up’ is never an option. If you’re living with someone with depression, helping them can feel like an impossible challenge. It might feel like, no matter what you do, all of your efforts are in vain. And while there will be many days when you’ll feel like you just aren’t getting through, it’s important to understand that every effort counts, even when it doesn’t feel that way. For many people with depression, their only hope on the darkest days is the support and presence of their closest friends and family.
The first step is always the simplest. Show up. Be there. Any effort to be a positive presence in the life of someone with depression will go a long way towards helping them improve. And when you feel ready, know that there is much more you can do to help.
What Depression Is and Is Not
It helps to better understand what depression is and isn’t. Sometimes, it becomes too easy to attribute something to depression rather than recognizing it as a different issue. And sometimes, we misunderstand something as completely unrelated, rather than seeing it as a symptom and an extension of the depression.
At its core, depression is a persistent low mood. A depression lasts anywhere from longer than two weeks, to decades. Depression can be very severe, invoking relentless feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts, or it can be subtler with regular episodes of self-deprecation and apathy in an otherwise normal life. Depression is often tied to a person’s stress levels and may be aggravated through hormone changes. Sometimes, a depressive episode is triggered by something – a sentiment, or a message, or even a thought. Sometimes, they come out of nowhere.
Apathy is a very common symptom – losing interest in hobbies and activities that used to be engaging. Alongside general sadness, depression often invokes specific feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Two thoughts that are often recurring are the thought that you are useless to the world, and the thought that things won’t get better.
Sleep problems and weight changes are common as well. It’s normal in cases of depression to be restless or often to oversleep, as well as to either dramatically lose or gain weight. Even in the most active individuals, it’s common for fatigue and a lack of energy to set in and take over. This effectively ties into appetite, reducing appetite while increasing cravings for sweets, salty foods, and other comfort foods. On top of general fatigue, depression is also prone to being paired with issues with procrastination. What is sometimes attributed to laziness is usually another facet of depression.
The core of depression is sadness, but because people interpret this emotion in many ways, the ultimate outcome for any given person’s depression is unique and very difficult to pinpoint. Person A might start stress eating to feel better and might completely withdraw from social contact. Person B might experience extreme distress when alone and will seek out shallow social contact to stave off thoughts of worthlessness, developing an eating disorder and avoiding food to stay trim. Some people develop extreme irritability and become hostile, cranky, and prickly. Others avoid all conflict and effectively let others roll over them.
Not all people with depression are prone to a variety of maladaptive coping mechanisms. Some people might seem outwardly fine, keeping up at school or at the workplace while breaking down privately and internally. Functioning depression, or persistent depressive disorder, is a form of long-lasting depression that presents itself as a subtler, less oppressive form of depression, but can often last for much longer than most other diagnoses.
While it’s important to understand that many different erratic behaviors and actions can be attributed to depression, it’s also important to set limits. A depressive diagnosis is never an excuse to let someone be abusive towards others. Sometimes, people feel pressured to enable behavior out of fear of reprimanding someone with depression.
But depression is not a reason to be hurtful. Neither should a person use it as a weapon to elicit sympathy after behaving terribly. This is critical when living with someone with depression, as a partner and/or caregiver. You need boundaries, and you need them to be respected. No matter how bad someone’s depression is, they can be convinced to avoid abusive behavior; physically, emotionally, and verbally.
It’s critical recognize your own limits and consider what you can and cannot live with. A relationship where one partner is depressed will always be somewhat unbalanced. While it’s natural to want to care for someone you love, don’t underestimate depression. Your job, if it can be called that, is to help – but not to treat. Seek out professional help together, and if your partner or friend is unwilling to go see a therapist, be sure to explain to them that there isn’t much anyone can do without them getting the proper help that they need.
The key to maintaining a healthy relationship with someone who is depressed is being aware of what their condition is, how it can manifest, and most importantly, how you yourself can deal with the effects the relationship might have on your own state of mind. It’s unfortunately common that caregivers in relationships with mentally-ill people find themselves struggling with their own challenges before too long. Put your own health first – if you aren’t mentally healthy, you cannot help your loved one.
Be A Partner, Not A Therapist
If you are committed to living with someone with depression and being their partner or friend, understand that you don’t have to work through their depression alone. While many therapists will encourage loved ones to be a big part of the recovery process, it’s important to remember that 1.) professional help is very important, and 2.) you can’t make the depression go away.
Any remission is going to happen through the effort and involvement of the person experiencing the depression. Any missteps and stumbles are neither your fault, nor their fault – depression is a complicated disorder, and sometimes treatment is about taking two steps forward and one step back. Only time can tell how effective any given treatment is, and it’s important to track long-term results rather than short-term changes. By sticking to it together, you can be an incredible help in the life of your loved one.