Strategies for living with a Depressed Loved One

Author: Phoebe Hutchison  

© 2016 Phoebe Hutchison Qualified Counsellor and Author of Honeymooners Forever, Twelve Step Marriage Survival Guide and Are You Listening? Life is Talking to You

Depression is an altered state of brain chemistry, that impacts a person’s mood, body, and life, in a detrimental way. It is a result of a life imbalance. When we resolve the life imbalance, and give the person tools to have power over thought, grieve well, and become connected to their life again, the imbalance, and the depression, become a thing of the past. When a person is coping well again in most areas of their life, depression symptoms usually subside. 

Allow me to shed light on the signs of a depressed person, give you a glimpse inside their world, and outline contributing factors for depression. This should equip you, and your loved one, with the strategies to improve your relationship, and lives, despite depression.  

Living with a depressed family member is full of challenges; some people feel cheated by the changes in their loved one’s actions and attitudes, others feel heartbroken and many become emotionally disconnected, eventually fracturing the relationship. As a relationship and crisis counsellor, I’ve helped many couples and individuals whose lives were impacted by depression... and I've witnessed many clients recover from depression.

What are the signs of a depressed spouse or family member?

Has your loved one changed and become negative, often pessimistic, about almost everything? Has he or she become quieter, emotionally withdrawn, simultaneously becoming unavailable for many family activities? Have they cut down on socializing, seem disinterested in work, family, school, or life? Have they increased emotional eating, drinking of alcohol or drug taking? Has your partner or family member become moody and easily angered? One client said, ‘My husband seems to be a shell – as if he has no soul,’ and another client said, ‘He’s no fun anymore; he’s just not the same person he was five years ago, before the depression.’ One woman said about her son, ‘He’s always angry.’ One man said, ‘My wife is constantly sad, and hardly talks, yet she has so many great things in her life... It doesn't make sense.’ 

These sentiments are common. While the contributing factors in depression vary from person to person, the way depression appears ‘from the outside’ is strikingly similar. 

How does it feel to have depression?

The daily walk with depression is a crippling one; relationships with family members, friends, colleagues, and life in general, all become more difficult and painful. The depressed person usually feels oppressed, and caged in, either by self-imposed restrictions or perceived (or real) external limitations placed on them. 

In most cases, unresolved grief and loss is at the core of depression. For men, it is often a loss of a relative or friend, job loss, or loss of a healthy status in the primary relationship. For women, it is often a loss of a child, miscarriage, feeling trapped in the primary relationship, or not following their passions. For children, it is often the loss of autonomy; feeling as though they are powerless, and have little choices in life, combined with negative thinking and emotional overwhelm. For everyone, depression can lead to a feeling of no hope, which is a major contributing factor in suicidal thinking. 

The depressed person lives in the shadows of self-condemnation, anger and frustration. As they over-focus on their defeats and weaknesses, causing their self-esteem to plummet, they compare themselves with others unfavorably - adding more bricks to the wall of isolation around them. This anger at life eventually points inwards, and prior goals seem unattainable. They often become pressured by most obligations, leaving them feeling ‘stuck’, struggling to make decisions, and fearful of the future. Many people with depression also suffer anxiety as well.

What are some of the side effects of depression?

This lack of fulfillment, and a feeling that life is ‘bland’, often becomes the catalyst for an escape. In marriage, this may be a ‘mid-life crisis’ or an affair; creating a change, then a temporary spark. In children, teenagers, or adults, this need for escape from the negative mind could lead to addictions, such as: self harm, food, dangerous behaviour, alcohol, or drugs. However, these methods often add to a devastating backlash of increased alienation from loved ones, fueling self-disgust and confusion, making matters worse. 

All these habitual negative, repetitive thoughts create an avalanche of sad emotions, impacting the body. As depression sets in, restless sleep, reduced sex drive, appetite changes, aches and pains, and fatigue, are common place. Feeling numb and disassociated from life, it is common to hear a depressed person say, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore’ and ‘I don’t know what I want.’ The motivation is greatly impacted, leading to a greater sense of hopelessness, and self-dislike.

How can you help your depressed spouse or family member?

Some partners tell their loved one to ‘harden up’ or ‘get over it’, which only exasperates the situation. Ideally, if your loved one has depression, you can assist them by encouraging them to see a doctor for possible medication and a psychologist or counsellor for therapy. Keep talking to your spouse, keep listening, avoid nasty ‘put down’ comments. As depression is not just ‘in the mind’; it is physical as well, be gentle and assist where you can in practical ways around the household. Being empathetic is important, but knowing helpful strategies is essential.

I have a tool in my 2nd book, Are You Listening? Life is Talking to You, that I encourage you to use, called The Crisis/ Life Balance Wheel. 

Ask yourself the following questions about your loved one (related to 8 vital areas): 

1. Thought Patterns (Are their thoughts mostly positive or negative?)
2. Self Esteem (Do they have strong self-esteem?)
3. Past Grief and Loss (Are they frequently emotional over a past loss or physical or emotional trauma?) 
4. Emotions (Are their emotions mostly positive or negative?) 
5. Brain Chemistry (Are they eating well and exercising at least 3 times weekly to improve brain neurotransmitters?) 
6. Support Networks (Do they have friends they regularly socialize with?)
7. Passions (Are they regularly enjoying passions/hobbies?) 
8. Lifestyle/Career (Do they enjoy their daily activities and are they suffering any financial stress?).

When using this Crisis/Life Balance Wheel for assessment, I ask the client to give me a Coping/Not Coping, response, which I translate to tick or a cross. (In my book, I offer strategies for these eight vital areas). When working with depression, It’s all about firstly identifying, then strengthening, areas where a person is not coping well. 

What are the signs of suicidal thinking?

Tragically, a person who is not coping in five or more of these 8 x areas is likely to be experiencing suicidal thinking, so be brave and ask them if they have had any suicidal thoughts. If they have had suicidal thoughts, seek professional help immediately and give them Lifeline phone no. 13 11 14 in Australia). Other signs that your loved one may be suicidal may include: feeling hopeless, useless, or saying their goodbyes, giving away possessions, putting legal affairs in order, or talking about dying frequently. 

How medicine and therapy can help?

What causes depression? Science suggests that depression is related to an imbalance in the levels of the following neurotransmitters in the brain: serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, and that depression can be hereditary.

So, does depression cause the imbalance in these neurotransmitters, which has a negative impact on the person's life OR does the life imbalance cause the imbalance in the neurotransmitters, which causes the depression? It is very much like the chicken and the egg - which came first? 

Your doctor can assist with antidepressant medication, which often works well in improving the balance of neurotransmitters. However, we need to work on two levels: 

1. Keep these brain chemistry levels correct.
2. Equip the depressed loved one with strategies for better coping with their relationships and life.

Many of my hundreds of counselling sessions have involved a client with depression. When you know what to look for, what to avoid, and how to help yourself, you can make a huge change in your own, and your loved one’s life. If your loved one has depression, they are give them a life line by being supporting, loving, and empathetic, and guide them to get help.

Keep talking, keep listening and keep the connection strong between you and your loved one. Now that you know more about what your loved one is going through, and that depression is an illness, not a choice, this should help you remain empathetic. With therapeutic strategies, lots of love, hope, and support, you should be able to help your loved one improve their life balance, so they can become connected to you, and life, again... which is the direct opposite of depression.

May your love for yourself, your life, and each other, deepen more daily.

Phoebe Hutchison, is the author of Are You Listening? Life Is Talking to You and Honeymooners Forever: Twelve Step Marriage Survival Guide. She has worked extensively as a qualified counsellor with couples and clients in crisis in Victoria, Australia, and is excited to share her strategies with a wider audience.

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