Depression is a debilitating disease that comes in all shapes and sizes—and even mild forms of it hurt. If you’re the one suffering, you can be left feeling sad, hopeless, and alone. And if it’s someone you love who suddenly seems down, you may find that you feel helpless and unsure how to help. Some days, you may even wonder if there’s actually anything you can do.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways you can lend your support. Here, top mental health professionals reveal five things you can do to help your partner ease his or her pain. (Want to become healthier and happier—and help those you care for do the same?
If you think your spouse is suffering from depression, the best thing you can do is talk about it, says Richard Schwartz, MD, a senior consultant at McLean Hospital’s adult psychiatry residency training program. Just as you wouldn’t ignore a sprained ankle, you don’t want to sidestep an issue as serious as depression—even if you suspect it’s mild. Not sure how to kick off the conversation? Try this: Instead of reacting negatively to a thought or a feeling about your partner’s depression (i.e. “why do you never want to go to the movies?” or “why are you yelling at me?”) try asking a question that will make him or her feel like their feelings are valid, suggests Lauren Osborne, MD, assistant director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Something like, “I notice you have been really irritable and down lately, do you want to talk?” will open the doors for honest, open communication, which can help you reach the root of the problem.
Depression has a way of making people feel powerless, but we have more control than we think. “Certain aspects of daily life are pretty powerful in reducing depression,” Schwartz says. Two of them: social connections and contact with others. After all, one of the hallmark symptoms of depression is social withdrawal—which often causes people to slip into an even darker mood. That’s why Schwartz suggests trying to re-engage a down-in-the-dumps partner with people he or she loves. Plan a group dinner with friends or suggest he hit the links with a buddy while you’re at your Saturday yoga class. While these things are pretty simple, they may be just what your other half needs to elevate their mood.
Bright, morning light can be an effective antidepressant, Schwartz points out. “Even a short walk first thing in the morning on an overcast day is enough light to make a difference in mood,” he notes. Walking has a dual effect, too. “One of the aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy is ‘behavioral activation’—a fancy name for helping someone start doing things again.” A morning walk provides your partner with some mood-boosting vitamin D from the sun and also gets them out the door doing things. For an even better outcome, join in if you have time. “It’s often easier for people to make changes if they’re doing them in tandem with someone else,” Osborne explains. (Tend to suffer from aches and pains when you go out for a stroll?
Anyone who has ever felt stressed before hitting the pavement only to feel unstoppable after they finished logging their miles has experienced the mood-boosting benefits of exercise. Experts aren’t strangers to it, either: “Exercise has a significant effect on mild depression,” Schwartz notes. Instead of being pushy about your other half hitting the treadmill, Osborne suggests saying something like, ‘I know you were really happy when you were running regularly.’ Social support helps here, too. Not just to keep your partner accountable (it’s easier to bail on yourself than a buddy) but also for the fun factor.
Once your partner opens up about his or her feelings, ask if they’d be willing to see someone to have their mood evaluated, Schwartz suggests. “It’s actually not so easy to distinguish between mild depression and situational unhappiness. It’s also hard to know how mild the depression actually is,” he explains. A professional will be able to assess factors like symptoms, health conditions, and family history to give an accurate diagnosis and action plan. (Which may include some of these 7 unusual new treatments for depression.) “People tend to be afraid of psychotherapy or the psychiatrist,” Osborne adds, but research suggests that talk therapy can be as effective as antidepressants. Just make sure your partner knows you’re behind them in their decision. People who feel unsupported by their partners are at an increased risk of developing depression, according to University of Michigan research. With that in mind, consider your attitude an important element of your overall action plan to help your other half.