by BARBARA MARTIN
Question: My spouse suffers from depression, and I
don’t know if I can deal with it. What do I do?
Experiencing your spouse’s struggles with depression, while you watch and feel absolutely impotent to help, is deeply sad, frightening, painful and frustrating. There is a fear that sets in because the darkness your spouse is experiencing seems like it is unending. You fear the person you married may never return emotionally, and the beauty and delight in the relationship you had might be gone forever.
You feel frustrated because you realize you cannot be enough, and the one you desperately want to please is in a place where they feel no pleasure at all. More than likely, you think that if you just had the right words or could do something at least, you could fix the depth of your spouse’s pain.
In dealing with depression, unfortunately, there are no magic wands.
Often, we are ignorant of the way depression affects a person physically, emotionally, mentally and relationally. Many times, most people don’t understand depression. The warning signs are missed or not taken seriously, so we don’t talk about it. We simply ignore it and hope it will go away.
The first thing a spouse married to one dealing with this should do is become educated on depression. There are many helpful books dealing with this. Talk to others who are experienced in dealing with depression, including counselors and physicians. Look at this issue through a holistic lens that will deal with the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual components of your spouse’s depression. It is okay not to be an expert, but know enough to initiate conversations with your spouse; know what to look out for and what not to say.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1 in 5 adults will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
A few key signs of depression are:
► Daily sadness
► Loss of interest in activities
► Restlessness, anxiousness or
► Trouble concentrating
► Excessive weariness and lethargy
► Sleeping or eating too much or too little
► Unexplained aches and pains
► Thoughts of suicide or death
If you recognize these symptoms in your spouse for more than a few weeks, check with your family doctor and offer to see a counselor with your spouse.
When you understand that clinical depression is a genuine medical condition, you might feel a bit less impotent in ways to help your spouse. There are some tangible ways to help a spouse who is depressed that I have gleaned from Focus on the Family, Josh Squires and my own reading for my practice:
► Pray deeply with and for them.
► Share meaningful scriptures with them if they are open to this.
► Listen and give credibility to their feelings.
► Seek help not just for them but also for yourself.
► Encourage them to consider medication; research shows that 80 percent of those suffering from a depressive disorder can be treated successfully with modern medications.
► Show your spouse hope when they feel they have none, because your hope is in Christ. (Hebrews 6:19)
► Show your spouse mercy even when you really don’t want to, because you have mercy in Christ that you don’t deserve. (Romans 3:24–25)
► Offer comfort when your spouse is in distress, because you have received the Spirit of comfort through Christ. (John 14:26)
Here are things NOT to do:
► Tell your spouse just to pray about it, or make them feel healing will come if they simply trust God more.
► Make them feel guilty for the impact of their illness on the family.
► Blame or criticize them.
► Imply they need help because they are weak.
► Expect medication to solve everything. Don’t discount the possible need for therapy instead of or in addition to medication.
► Let them continue in a pattern of sleep and isolation.
Remember you are in this battle together. It is never you vs. your “problem spouse.” It is you and your spouse vs. this problem. Remind yourself that, if you are a sinner (and you are), then there are ways you are exacerbating the situation. Repent of your own sin in this area openly and, when appropriate, be transparent with your own struggles.
Remind yourself that Jesus is at work right in the middle of this, especially in suffering. The Lord knows how to redeem “the years the locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25). You are never alone in this struggle.
Barbara Martin, LPC, LMFT, is an adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson and the emotional care consultant for Mission to North America, a branch of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). She has a private practice in Ridgeland, has been married to Hal for 45 years, and has three sons and five grandchildren.