Resources and support for partners of people with depression
March 21, 2016 4:26 AM   Subscribe

What help is out there for people who are partners to people with depression?

Searching Google (and metafilter) uncovered very few resources aimed at helping the partner of a person with depression.

This was initially going to be a more specific question, pertaining directly to a friend of mine in this situation. Fortunately, in her case, the partner has finally found a therapist, her school program is making some accommodations, and some of the load has been taken off her back, but the question still remains, for her and for others.

When things were at their worst, my friend was juggling both a challenging PhD program, running her household single-handedly because her depressed spouse could not be relied on to be able to handle anything, and bearing an enormous part of the burden of her spouse's emotional state - not just because it's hard when it's hard for your partner, but also because she was expected to be the stable one (because there was no one else holding things together), because she couldn't express resentment to the depressed partner (it wouldn't help, it would just make him feel guilty for what, essentially, was a medical problem he couldn't help), and countless other strains and challenges specific to being a partner to someone with depression.

So here are some things I'd like to ask about:

1. Being a partner to someone depressed does not actually mean you are automatically fully informed about depression. Where can you learn what you need to, medically, to help you understand what your partner is going through and ways you can help?

2. Strategies for coping with practical issues that arise with a depressed spouse- here are some issues that come up:
A. How much can they reasonably be pushed? What are reasonable expectations to have while still understanding that they are dealing with an illness? Where can you set boundaries to maintain your own mental health while still supporting this person you are committed to?
B. What are effective methods of reaching a depressed person. For example, signs to watch for of when it might be more/less productive to have a conversation that absolutely must happen. How to break down tasks for them because there are things they need to do that the spouse cannot do for them and that must get done- choosing a therapist, sending out applications, etc. Everything along those lines.

3. Support for the supporting partner - taking as a baseline that someone with a depressed partner should also have access to a therapist for themselves, because it's a heavy burden to carry alone, what other steps can they take to take care of themselves? What are recommended online support groups, for example? What about something helps to break down, prioritize, and triage tasks when you're simply too overwhelmed to handle everything. Maybe just stories of other people who have been there and gotten through it, as comfort when the going gets extra tough? What are legal resources or other resources a person should be aware of, if they need it, in other areas (ie if they end up needing to take off from work etc, is there any protection, etc?)

The three topics above aren't meant to limit the conversation to just those three, they were just what I saw my friend needed but if other people in this position chime in with any resources they found useful, under any category, that's also appreciated.
posted by Cozybee to Human Relations (7 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
My personal experience was there is none, unless you have significant financial resources. Friends drift away from depressed people (unless they are unhealthy themselves and are perpetuating the depression), work can only have so much tolerance for poor performance, and family don't want to acknowledge their own dysfunctional behaviour.

I found my husband's medical team were themselves so overwhelmed with patients (and their overwhelming needs) they forced me into taking over many of their tasks (like talk therapy, medication monitoring, subsuming my own needs) in order to make their jobs easier. I was also expected to cope with my husband's family blaming me for his depression/poor coping skills and prioritize their needs over my own as well (because they knew that socially they *couldn't* be openly angry at someone with depression, but apparently it was ok to be angry at me and play the blame and shame game). I should mention, for my husband we were in the number one mental health facility in Canada that has the most generous funding - I shudder to think what lesser organizations expected of spouses.

The feedback I got from his medical team was that the boundaries I fought very hard to maintain - that I wasn't his therapist, that he needed to be active in his treatment instead of relying on my as an external motivator, and I should have time away from his round-the-clock-care (including when he was hospitalised for months at a time) for things like my work, education and children - were indeed the "right" thing to do, but made the medical team's lives much more difficult and they, for a period of five+ years, wanted me to "temporarily" put myself on the back burner.

My advice now to people, especially women because societal expectations are so ridiculous for us, is that a partner with depression is a sinking ship you best abandon after three months of depression they are not actively treating themselves unless the depressed person has financial reserves to purchase therapy, housekeeping, cooking, childcare, vacations, and allow both partners to take significant time off work. Otherwise, someone is going to be giving till they are empty and then most likely, left without support themselves.
posted by saucysault at 5:37 AM on March 21, 2016 [13 favorites]

i guess i am more academic than most, but one thing that helped me was reading a book aimed at counsellors for people with depression (in my case, gilbert's counselling for depression, but that may be out of print now).

looking back, i think the most important thing i learnt (perhaps not from that book) is that it's not your fault, and not your responsibility. you can't "fix" them and you're not at duty to deal with their shit. obviously, it's great if you can help. but it's not a criticism of you when you can't. looking after yourself is actually the long term winning strategy, because you'll still be in one piece when things get back to normal.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:40 AM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not sure what country you are in, but if you're in the U.S., this is a big part of what NAMI does. Here's a link to their family support group directory.
posted by thetortoise at 6:09 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There are a variety of resources listed on the MeFi Wiki ThereIsHelp page, including links to support services and AskMe threads related to depression and how to support someone with depression.

Information about how to find legal help is available at the MeFi Wiki Get a lawyer page, including resources related to mental health and disability rights.
posted by Little Dawn at 7:43 AM on March 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Tackling your questions one at a time:

1. I can't help directly with this one - having depression myself meant that I wasn't starting from zero in terms of understanding how depression works. But I think I would recommend reading to learn generally about what depression is like and what your partner is going through - maybe books for counsellors, maybe memoirs by people with depression, of which there are many good ones. "Ways you can help", though, is going to be pretty individual to your partner, so for that your best resource is really just asking, if a day comes when your partner's stable enough for that conversation.

2. Strategies for coping with practical issues that arise with a depressed spouse" These all sound like great conversations to have with your therapist, with a support group for family members of people with mental illnesses (NAMI is a good suggestion here), and with your spouse if that's a possibility. There's no one-size-fits-all answer for these questions and a lot of it is something you're going to have to work out for yourself with your partner's input, and your therapist's support.

3. Support for the supporting partner: Yes, yes, this is extraordinarily critical. Support groups can be great - online or in-person. If they think they may need time off work then they should look into their employer's FMLA process - better to at least glance over it when things are not in a crisis, to have some idea of what will be needed should a crisis turn up. I would also suggest self-care for the partner that is not specifically about support regarding depression. Just some focus on things that are purely for the supporting partner's benefit - a hobby they enjoy, a good friend they can talk honestly with about their feelings, time to exercise, whatever will support the supporting partner in having some aspects of their life be about things other than All Depression, All the Time. Even if they feel guilty about it, I would rush to assure them that you can be a better supporting partner when you are stable yourself.

And an additional #4: Look for where you can let things go, or outsource things, if resources permit. Can you hire a cleaner or someone to maintain the yard? Can you order delivery more often than you otherwise might? Can you learn to live with clutter so you have some time in the evening for self-care instead of cleaning things? If you have the luxury of throwing some money at problems, this is a time when it may be worth doing so you can focus on what really can't be done by anyone else.
posted by Stacey at 7:55 AM on March 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's important to differentiate between "depressed person" and "emotional-labor vampire". Make sure that you are not just taking on all of the emotional labor for someone who refuses to make an effort. An illness does not justify hurtful or neglectful behavior.

I'll second saucysault: if an adult can't get a handle on their medical condition, and it requires them to neglect or hurt you, it's better to take some time to support yourself, think about your own future, and do things that are good for your life. You don't have to give your life to another person. You get to have your own.
posted by 3491again at 12:17 PM on March 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can think of one thing that helped my husband immensely: Boundaries.

When I got too hardcore he would kindly tell me that things were getting too intense and he did not know how to help me, and that the particular topic at hand was something I should bring up to my therapist. Then he would follow up to confirm that I did schedule an appointment.

It kept me from dragging him into my depression more times than I can count, and I am very thankful that he didn't let me turn our relationship into an externalization of my own navel-gazing.
posted by Tarumba at 6:19 AM on March 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

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