“My spouse seems depressed sometimes. How can I help?” Ensign, Apr. 1984, 21
D. Russell Crane, Ph.D., Marriage and Family Therapy, Brigham Young University. First, let me briefly describe what depression is. Then the suggestions that follow may be of more practical value.
There are several types of depression. One type is depression caused by a reaction to a sudden significant loss or change in life’s circumstances. The sudden changes may come from the loss of a loved one, friend, job, or favorite activity—or from moving, aging, illness, or problems with children.
Other types of depression can be caused by experiences earlier in life, such as being raised in a critical or punishing family (often resulting in low self-esteem). It may also be caused by responses to current life circumstances, such as regret over unfulfilled expectations or resentment toward a controlling or manipulative spouse. Infrequently, depression may also be caused by chemical imbalances in the body.
Individuals suffering from depression will most often experience some (but not necessarily all) of these symptoms: increased irritability; more crying than usual or, in extreme cases, an inability to cry; withdrawal from friends and family; decreased energy; unplanned weight loss and loss of appetite; sleeplessness; decrease in sexual feelings; increased preoccupation with body functions or with changes in appearance. He or she may experience feelings such as sadness, pessimism, a sense of failure or guilt, self-dislike, self-criticism, and boredom. He or she may make jokes or specific statements about suicide.
Depression is best thought of as a continuum—with normal sadness on one end and extreme feelings of depression on the other. Most of us experience normal fluctuations in mood. But the intensity and duration of the negative mood in a depressed person is excessive.
With this short background, let’s look again at the question: What can you do if your husband or wife is experiencing depression?
First, express your feelings of understanding and empathy. Although you may not have experienced the symptoms to a similar degree, accept the reality of your spouse’s feelings and express a sincere desire to help.
Second, continue to live a gospel-centered life. Regular spiritual activity teaches us all the principles of patience, forgiveness, and empathy. Seek the Spirit in your own life as a comfort and a guide. Continue regular individual and husband/wife prayer and gospel study. The scriptures are full of examples of courage and hope. Such examples can be a source of help, hope, and optimism, even in difficult times.
Third, discuss with your partner the possibility of seeking additional help. If you feel it is appropriate, you may want to counsel with your bishop together. He may suggest a professional in your area who can help with depression. Volunteer to go to treatment together. Your willingness to participate in treatment shows your concern and your desire to be nonjudgmental about the problem.
Fourth, examine yourself to see if you may have contributed to your partner’s feelings of depression. Make necessary changes. However, resist the temptation to heap all the blame upon yourself.
Fifth, resist also the tendency to blame others, even in cases where past experiences or present circumstances can be accurately identified as being the “cause” of depression. Little is gained by blaming and expressing anger towards the “cause.” Resentment seldom leads to resolution of the problem. Rather, it leads to more depression and anger. The best solution is to practice forgiveness.
Sixth, instead of talking to your spouse about mistakes or failures, talk about accomplishments, goals, and present and past successes. Focus on the positive aspects of your life together and on your spouse’s good qualities as a person. Rather than rejecting or withdrawing from your companion, maintain regular times together and include him or her in family decisions and activities.
Seventh, do what you can to relieve tensions and pressures. But avoid the trap of producing dependency and a feeling of helplessness by accepting too much responsibility. There is a fine line between helping and helping “too much.” Many times, help with housework or yardwork or encouraging a temporary break from everyday responsibilities can relieve some of the pressure your spouse feels. But it’s important to provide such help in a sincere spirit of love rather than in a spirit of resentfulness or condescension.
Eighth, continue to show your love. Giving praise, thanks, compliments, and affection to your spouse will be reassuring and comforting during this crisis. Don’t be discouraged if your attempts to show love are not immediately returned or acknowledged. They do have a positive effect and will be remembered and appreciated.