John* had seemed less like himself lately, and his wife Celeste* had started to notice. He laughed less, and when he was at home all he wanted to do was sleep. They had only been married for a few years, so it was very noticeable when John’s libido suddenly went down the drain.
Celeste wondered, what happened to her once happy-go-lucky husband? The guy who used to be the life of the party now just went to work, school, and hardly did anything else. She grew concerned. When she would ask him what was wrong, he would just shrug his shoulders. After a while, she took her concerns to a family member, who was a retired therapist. The therapist recommended that Celeste talk to John and help him get in to see someone.
Through talking to his doctor, John realized that he in fact was depressed. In the process, he also realized that a traumatic event that happened to a family member triggered his downward spiral, and then everything else in his life seemed overwhelming to the point of debilitating. Once the family member was better, and John had worked through his emotional issues, his depression eventually dissipated.
Along the way, Celeste was a big support to John. She tried to give him space when he needed it, but she also reminded him often that she would be happy to talk to him about anything. Sometimes while driving around town, when John seemed to be more emotionally ready, they talked about his feelings. She tried to take the burden off of his shoulders as much as she could. In the end, the couple grew closer through the experience.
What is depression?
Depression is a very real mental illness and can be very serious. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, major depressive disorder affects over 14 million American adults; it is more common in women, and the median age for adult depression is around 32 years old—though it can happen at any age. Some people develop depression after a specific event, and others develop it for seemingly no reason at all. Sometimes depression resolves after a period of time, and still others battle it for their entire lives.
It’s hard when it happens to you, and it’s hard when it happens to your spouse. Sometimes the change is gradual, so you may not connect the dots at first. But then one day it hits you—something’s very wrong. As that person’s spouse, you are the one who can best spot changes in their moods or behavior, and you are the first person who can support them in getting the help they need.
Here are ways to spot depression in your spouse and what to do about it:
Know the Warning Signs
If your spouse has any of the following symptoms (info from the May Clinic), he or she could have depression:
- Overwhelming anxiety, sadness, anger, irritability, hopelessness, or frustration over big or little things.
- Loss of interest in activities/hobbies he or she once enjoyed, also a loss of interest in sex.
- Extreme tiredness, also sleeping too much or having difficulty sleeping.
- Changes in appetite to hardly eating or eating too much, especially emotional eating.
- Feelings of guilt or loss of self confidence. Negative self talk and negative about most things in general.
- Difficulty thinking clearly or remembering things; slow in speech or doing tasks.
- Thinking or talking about death or suicide.
What to Do if You Think your Spouse has Depression
One the first reactions we might have when we realize our spouse has depression is to ask: Why? It is an innocent question; after all, we are just trying to make sense of it all because we love our spouse. But the question can rarely be answered in a clear cut way. So try not to ask why, because the answer doesn’t always matter. Simply ask, what can I do to help?
First and foremost, if your spouse is in danger of harming himself or herself, call 911 or take your spouse to the emergency room.
If you are on the fence about what you are noticing, then the next step is to talk to your spouse. Timing is key here. You don’t want to bring up this touchy subject when your spouse is not in a state of mind to listen or deal with it. So watch for a good opportunity. Perhaps you can get a babysitter and take your spouse out on Saturday night; after dinner and a movie, when your spouse is more relaxed, ask how he or she is doing. Really listen with your ears and eyes. Then softly point out the things you have noticed. Help your spouse feel loved in that moment.
The next step is to urge your spouse to see his or her medical doctor just to talk about it. Many people dislike going to the doctor, unless they are in major physical pain. Point out that this is a similar issue, but it is emotional pain. Help them realize it isn’t their fault, but they can do something about it. Perhaps they will or won’t need medication, or perhaps talking to a therapist will help.
Here are a few ways to support your spouse through depression:
Learn Everything You Can About Depression
Read as much as you can about it, talk to doctors about it, go with your spouse to appointments and ask questions, ask others for their personal stories, join a Facebook group of people with spouse with depression, etc. These are just some of the ways you can learn about the mental illness that is plaguing your spouse. Not everyone experiences depression in the same way, so realize that your spouse’s battle won’t be the same as the ones you read about.
Notice Triggers and Try to Reduce their Burden
In the story of John and Celeste, once they realized that his depression started due to a family member’s traumatic event, it was easier to talk about his feelings. After that, Celeste also noticed John’s triggers for negative feelings. If something went wrong at work, or he had a looming deadline in a class, or he didn’t get enough sleep, John’s depression would get worse quickly. So she always checked up on how things were going at work and listened to his concerns, she helped him with his assignments for school, and she took care of more things around the house so he could rest more.
Always Offer a Hopeful Outlook
A depressed person has a mental illness. It’s not their fault, but they will feel that there is something wrong with them. They will feel as if everyone is judging them. Try to help your spouse feel your support every day. Give them a hopeful outlook. Reassure them that everything will be ok. Sometimes, all you can do is hold your spouse and stroke their hair. Perhaps some days won’t be good. But tell your spouse that you aren’t going anywhere, no matter what. Your presence will give them hope.
Encourage Your Spouse to Continue Self Care
It can be hard for someone with depression to believe that they can get out of it. Some days, they don’t even have the motivation to get out of bed, let alone take the steps necessary to get better. Always encourage your spouse to keep doctor or therapy visits—drive your spouse there if need be, and sit with them in the waiting room. Encourage your spouse to take any prescribed medication—pick up the prescription if need be. Also encourage your spouse to do the things they once loved, and to get out and do things even if they don’t feel like it.
Depression won’t magically disappear overnight. It can take months, years, or it may never fully go away. The important thing is to know the signs, and support your spouse in the way he or she needs. In sickness and in health, you two are a team. You lean on each other during the hard times. When a spouse has depression, it can be a hard time, but your support will make all the difference.
*Names have been changed.