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How to help a partner who’s dealing with depression

When you love someone, you naturally want to support them through life’s ups and downs. When your loved one is being treated for a mental illness like depression, you often feel helpless, unsure how you can help or even fearful that you could inadvertently make their situation worse. However there are  things you can do to support your partner’s recovery. These actions may seem minor, but they’re still important steps on the road to recovery.


In the 21st century we’re more enlightened than ever about mental health matters. Yet it’s still essential that you really take to heart the idea that depression is an illness, caused by conditions in a person’s brain. You can’t see this condition with an x-ray or ultrasound, but it is there, and it deeply affects your partner’s whole life, including physical health. People with depression might superficially appear lazy or like they’re “not trying.” That is NOT the case. These behaviours are symptoms of their illness. If you’re unable to do anything else, viewing their struggle from an illness perspective will be a first step. It will help you be comforting, understanding and validate what they’re going through. 


When your loved one is being treated for depression, their doctor or therapist often assigns small, homework-like tasks. We have decades of research showing that exercise and being outdoors actually increase levels of mood-altering serotonin. So we may ask our clients to go for a walk, sit in the yard or do some other simple physical activity. This is called “behaviour activation.” We might even ask them to watch a silly movie, as a way to take a break from the depression for a couple of hours. As a partner, you can help a lot by gently encouraging these behaviors. To be 100% clear, your job is not in any way to do therapy on your partner, or discuss their issues. Don’t judge, pressure or give advice. View your role as a mild-mannered cruise director, easing your partner toward small activities that aid in recovery.


Depression is huge and complicated. It has a way of taking over every aspect of a person’s life. It’s important to protect yourself, so you don’t get swallowed up by your partner’s distress. When your loved one is ill, it can feel selfish to focus on your own needs. Caring for a person is taxing, and you need breaks. It’s exactly like the airline safety instructions that tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else. You love your partner, and want to support them, but if you suffocate while doing it, you’re no help to anyone. 

Even with the best of care—including medication, therapy and “doing the work,” as we mental-health professionals say—it takes time to recover from depression. It’s very much a marathon. If you don’t look after your needs, you’ll be unable to sustain your compassion, and perform your supporting role. So, play a round of golf, go shopping, putter in the garden or visit with friends—whatever you do to recharge your batteries. Then come home, ready to help.

Over and over, in my decades of clinical practice, I’ve seen how clients lucky enough to have the right kind of loving support get better faster. So as I said at the beginning, this role I’ve outlined may seem minor, but it truly is essential to your loved one’s recovery.

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