This Is What To Do If You Notice Your Partner Seems Depressed
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
It can be a really heartbreaking to experience someone you love deeply feeling seriously down or not their usual selves. Couples have many ways of approaching these situations.
First of all, if you suspect your partner is struggling with their mental health or they directly tell you that they are, here's what not to do: leave them alone, avoid talking about it, and assume they'll figure it out on their own.
Yet a new study published in the journal Society and Mental Health suggests that may be exactly what a majority of straight couples do.
Researchers interviewed 90 married people, including gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples, about their experiences with having a person in their relationship (themselves or their partner) go through mental health difficulties like depression and anxiety. They talked about how they knew their partner was depressed and how they responded to the situation. The vast majority of gay and lesbian spouses and a little under half of straight folks took an active role in encouraging their partners to seek professional help for their mental health struggles. Meanwhile, more than half of straight spouses did not suggest getting formal treatment and largely viewed their partner's mental health difficulties as something to be handled by themselves.
"These non-regulating spouses conceptualized the symptomatic spouse's mental health as a serious issue but did not promote mental health care because [they believed] a spouse would not be willing to go, it was a spouse's issue to deal with alone, or it was something the spouse was incapable of addressing," the researchers explained in the paper. "Thus, in addition to not encouraging mental health care, there was often very little encouragement or support around the mental health symptoms in these couples."
Why you should talk to your significant other if they seem depressed.
"It's always a good idea to try to be an active support system for your partner," relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, tells mindbodygreen. "If you notice that your partner seems depressed or anxious, the first thing you want to do is ask them directly. Tell them what you observe and ask them how they are feeling. Often they might be aware that they are struggling, but often it takes another person to reflect to them that they don't seem like themselves."
This might be especially true for men, the researchers found. Past studies have shown straight men tend to ignore their own and their partners' health problems in general, and they particularly do so when it comes to mental health problems because of lingering stigma around professional mental health care. "Stigmatization may be especially consequential for heterosexual men who are more likely to equate mental health care with weakness," the researchers note. (That's why, when it comes to gay and lesbian couples, people are much more likely to get involved and support their partner's mental health care—gendered stereotypes are already rendered irrelevant.)
Fortunately, the stigma around mental health is quickly deteriorating these days. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are all incredibly common among adults—literally one in five Americans has a mental illness—so there's absolutely no reason to be ashamed about getting treated for them just like you would any physical illness. Moreover, you (and your partner) shouldn't have to simply cope with these sufferings when there are scientifically proven treatments available that can alleviate or eliminate what they're going through. If you can live without feeling so miserable and out of control all the time and have the means to access the care to get there, why wouldn't you?
"There are some situations that need professional help," Hartstein emphasizes. "If your partner is expressing suicidal thoughts, using drugs or alcohol excessively, or has trouble getting out of bed and embarking upon their day, it's time to bring in the extra family support and bring in a professional."
"The decision to seek mental health care is typically viewed as an individual decision, yet among the married, decisions of if and when to seek mental health care likely occur at the couple level, with spouses playing a key role in how individuals view and participate in mental health care," the researchers write. "Because barriers in obtaining mental health care exist, such as the stigmatization of mental illness, spouses may play a further role in the destigmatization of mental health problems by promoting or encouraging engagement in mental health care."
How to have the conversation.
The findings from this study clearly demonstrate that partners can play a huge role in supporting each other through mental health struggles and promoting professional care as an important step in the process.
"A person should encourage their partner to talk to someone," Hartstein says. "You don't want to insist or push, but often when someone is in a bad place, they aren't thinking completely straight. They might need an outside observer to tell them that they are struggling and that there are options such as talking to a therapist."
In addition to encouraging your partner to seek out help, Hartstein also recommends being actively engaged in making sure they're taking part in necessary self-care rituals, many of which have been proven to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. "It's helpful to encourage a partner who is having a hard time to do smaller types of self-care such as take a walk, have a workout, take a nap, read a book, try yoga or meditation, go to a movie," she says, also adding the importance of making sure "your partner feels that you are looking out for them and that you care."