Dealing with a spouse’s illness is never easy. Administering patient, compassionate care—doing everything you can do while acknowledging your own limitations—can be draining, to say the least. This is all the more so when the illness in question is one that presents itself without any tangible, physical symptoms.
Mental illness is a prickly subject in general—still highly stigmatized despite being overwhelmingly common. Indeed, countless adults suffer with depression yet knowing how to help a depression patient remains elusive. When that depression patient is your spouse, however, it’s vital that you know how to respond with kindness, gentleness, and hope.
The first and best thing you can do to support your spouse is to understand what depression is—and what it isn’t.
Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain, one that can affect mood and behavior in a number of different ways. It is a real illness, diagnosable and treatable through medicine—and though it is not necessarily something that can be “cured,” it is something that can come in seasons, its symptoms ebbing and flowing.
Depression is not made up. It is not an illusion, and it’s not something that exists all in your spouse’s head. It is not necessarily tied to any external event, nor is it something that can be “fixed.”
The worst ways to respond to depression are with anger, judgment, or shame. You would not feel embarrassed or angry at your spouse if he or she was diagnosed with cancer or a broken foot; depression is no different.
Being a Team Player
As you seek to understand your spouse, and to offer compassion and support, remember that you’re both on the same team and you’re fighting the same enemy. The enemy is not your spouse. The enemy is the disease itself. The enemy is depression.
Invest some time in showing your support and your closeness to your spouse, then. Go on daily walks together. Make yourself available to drive your spouse to a doctor’s appointment. Let your spouse know that you are always available to talk, but don’t be pushy about it. Let your spouse open up to you when the timing is right.
Make Wellness the Goal
Of course, your spouse may not be open to talking, and in fact your spouse may not admit that he or she has a problem. That’s where things can get dicey, and where it may fall to you to encourage your spouse to get the necessary help.
For depression to get better, you’ll likely need a medical diagnosis and a treatment course. Gently encourage your spouse to seek a medical professional’s opinion about this. Don’t be aggressive or judgmental, but simply let your spouse know that you want him or her to feel better and to live a healthy and happy life.
Keep Everyone in the Loop
Another potentially prickly point: Telling your kids about the issue. Very young children may not be aware that mom or dad has a medical problem, and may not need to. Older kids will pick up on it, and it is important to speak with them candidly about it—giving them information that is age-appropriate.
What does this information entail, and where do you draw the line? That’s an individual decision to make, based on the needs of your youngsters. Talk it over with your spouse and do what you believe to be in the family’s best interests, remembering that open communication is always to be desired.
A final word of note: Depression treatments do not work overnight. They work over time, sometimes shakily and imperfectly. You and your spouse will need to invest in a long-term fight against the disease, which means remaining hopeful even when things do not get better right off the bat.
Patience, understanding, support—these are the keys. Hold them close as you help your spouse through this treacherous, yet never hopeless, condition.