Relationships are hard, and they’re even harder when you or your partner’s mood isn’t in check. Though mental illness, especially depression, is scarily common in America, there is still a stigma attached to it. Society’s at a point where we can talk openly about sex and even the wildest of fetishes, but revealing histories of mental illness is still a hard topic to broach—the last taboo. But even though coming out and coming clean about your troubled mind to a significant other can be a terrifying thing, it’s essential in order to build the foundation of a healthy relationship. For those people who are on the receiving end of finding out about a partner’s depression, there are definitely appropriate ways to coming to terms with what being in this type of relationship means. Here, then, are some pointers for how to cope with and help support someone with depression.
1. Remember: You are dating a person, not an illness. Labels, shmabels: A person isn’t defined by their mental health status. And one label that you should never use is “crazy.” Not only is it inaccurate and just plain mean, but harsh words like that can stick with someone for ages. Nobody’s perfect, and every relationship is about figuring out whether or not another person is the right fit for you, flaws (or “flaws”) and all. Mental illness might be a chronic disease, but so is diabetes or asthma, and those aren’t usually relationship dealbreakers. Mental illness doesn’t have to be either.
2. Educate yourself. Use the internet to your advantage to research mental illnesses. Hey, you’re reading this! Good start. You can also read articles by medical professionals to learn more about the condition’s causes, signs, and treatments. Good resources are the National Institute of Mental Health and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This’ll help you better understand what’s happening inside the brain, and why. Plus, your partner will probably think it’s super thoughtful that you did your homework. Also important, though understandably quite scary, is educating yourself about suicide and self-harm. Be aware of warning signs so that you can seek outside medical help if necessary.
3. Depression is 100 percent real. Don’t try to belittle your partner’s feelings. Just because you can’t necessarily see the illness, doesn’t mean that it isn’t debilitating. Actually, some studies have been done with PET scans showing brain changes in depressed people. Also, a common misconception is that depression just equals sadness, while in reality, there are many more signs and symptoms. Never try to tell someone that their emotions are invalid, or urge them to “snap out of it.” Unfortunately, that’s really not possible. Brain chemicals and neurotransmitters are complicated things.
4. Know that you can’t cure someone. Nope, sorry. First, off: A cure isn’t always a possibility when it comes to mental illness. Management, however, is key, and you can be a huge help when it comes to that. You can absolutely be the one who can make someone forget about their problems, if only for a couple of hours. While you can’t cure depression with your charm, you can be the reason someone smiles. And you can support a depressed person seeking external help from medical professionals for themselves.
5. Support recovery. Help them get help. Do they want to start going to therapy? Help them research to find one that might be a good fit. Are they scared to go to a new therapist? Offer to take them and hang out in the waiting room with them. Little gestures can make a huge impact. Support them in decisions they make alongside their doctors. You should never give advice on what to do when it comes to medications, or offer unsolicited opinions on whether or not medication is necessary. This should be something that’s handled solely by a medical professional.
6. “It’s not you, it’s... them.” Here’s the thing: A depressed person is sad because of chemicals in the brain, not because their partner is doing something wrong. It’s not that they don’t love you, it’s just that sometimes their brain feels like it’s drowning in a bubbly black puddle of tar and it’s hard to focus on anything else. Yeah, we know: It’s totally not fair. But it isn’t fair for them either. And even though it’s difficult, try not to take your partner’s anger or sadness personally. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also be taking care of your own needs, but just keep in mind that they aren’t depressed on purpose.
7. “Sorry, I can’t go out tonight!” Big components of depression for some people are tiredness and withdrawing from social situations. So, a depressed person is definitely not always going to be down to go party with all your friends or hang out in big groups. That can be pretty disappointing sometimes. We know. We get it. But pushing them to do something that they don’t want to do will only make matters worse. They probably already feel plenty bad, so don’t guilt trip. Figure out some alternatives, and empathize with their needs.
8.Be a good listener. It’s scary to share the dark sides of a mental illness with someone, especially when they are attached to such a stigma. Keep this information to yourself and don’t go telling all your buddies your partner’s personal information. Patience is also key, whether that means listening to your partner vent or when they are going through a bad day (or week or month or even year).
9. Sex might not always be a priority. Depression can cause lack of interest in things someone once enjoyed, and this can include sex. On top of that, SSRIs (a class of drugs used to treat depression) can cause libido to drop. While this doesn’t happen to everyone on meds, it’s a very real side effect. Again, this is not something to take personally. Patience is key here. This lack of libido might only be temporary, and after all, sex (or even just cuddling) releases hormones that make you feel good. And that’s never a bad thing—when both of you are ready and willing, of course.
10. You’ve got to love me harder. Ariana Grande lyrics aside, people suffering from depression probably need extra TLC, because they are super hard on ourselves. Low self-esteem basically comes with the territory. Compliment your loved one lots. Your partner might not believe you or take the remarks to heart at first, but every little piece of kindness counts, and can help build them up to eventually have a good self-image.
Bottom line: This is hard work. You have to love someone and be willing to take the good with the bad in a relationship like this, but, hey, that’s kind of true of all relationships, you know? The lows will be pretty low, but there will also be incredible highs with a partner you love in a relationship that’s taken a lot of work, making those highs feel super well-earned. The intimacy that can be built in a situation like this is incalculable because your partner will love and appreciate you more than you know thanks to everything you’ve both invested in your relationship, easily making it worth all the struggle in the end.