“Unprecedented times” or not, caring for a partner who is struggling with depression is a difficult task. But amid the pandemic, so many additional factors can add an additional layer of stress to that already tricky and emotionally taxing situation. For instance, grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 or struggling with financial insecurity related to job loss are troubling realities of the pandemic for many that can’t be helped or changed. And the uncertainty of not having any sense of when the pandemic may end and feeling isolated from friends and loved ones in the meantime can also have adverse effects on mental health. So, while caring for a partner who’s navigating symptoms of depression is always tricky, doing so while also caring for yourself during pandemic times is no simple task, either.
After all, even without those aforementioned factors playing in, when your partner is feeling sad or depressed, it’s natural for you to feel sad. And because so many people are working from home right now, couples may be spending more time together in close quarters than ever. This means no “escaping” to work. It can all just be…a lot.
Still, prioritizing your own mental health is key for being able to effectively support a partner who’s struggling with depression symptoms. Below, mental health experts offer tips to help.
Be proactive after noticing signs of depression
Watching for signs of depression is important because noticing certain changes in behavior or loss of interest in things a person previously enjoyed can help you be proactive rather than reactive, says clinical psychologist Lisa Langer, PhD, author of Deeper into Mindfulness. To bring up what you’ve noticed, she suggests leading with compassion and kindness, and asking your partner about their feelings. “Simply asking what’s wrong, or if there’s anything you can do to help is really helpful,” Dr. Langer says, adding that a peaceful home environment and regular routine are also helpful. “Think of some stress relievers you can do together, such as taking a walk each evening.”
Viva Wellness co-founder and clinical therapist Rachel Gersten, LMHC, adds that supporting your partner doesn’t always mean talking through what’s on their mind. “You can be there for your partner just by simply watching a movie with them on the couch. Or by picking up their favorite ice cream next time you’re at the store,” she says. Finding small ways to show you care goes a long way. All of that said, if your partner has mentioned self-harm, Dr. Langer says it’s important that they get professional help immediately.
Prevent your own burnout
Being an emotional shoulder to lean on can take a toll on a person, and while it’s important your partner feels comfortable and safe opening up to you, boundaries are also crucial, says licensed clinical therapist Nedra Tawwab, LCSW. “One way to really help your partner and yourself is to connect them to outside support,” she says, adding that virtual therapy can be an accessible option for this.
This not only provides an unbiased ear who can provide professional help but also lifts what might be a too-heavy emotional burden off your shoulders. “We are all collectively experiencing some sort of grief and traumatic response to everything that’s happening,” Tawwab says. “You may barely be coping yourself, so taking on someone else’s emotional burdens can be too much. It’s important to set boundaries about just how frequently you are listening to others’ problems.”
“You may barely be coping yourself, so taking on someone else’s emotional burdens can be too much. It’s important to set boundaries.” —clinical therapist Nedra Tawwab, LCSW
That said, it isn’t easy to tell a partner to stop talking about their emotions, especially because listening is an important way to show support. But if you are starting to feel overwhelmed by your supporting role, Tawwab suggests respectfully voicing your needs. “You can communicate that you care about them while also expressing how it’s impacting your mental health to talk about something [extensively].”
Another strategy for setting boundaries while still supporting a partner who’s struggling with depression symptoms is scheduling time for yourself each day, says Gersten. Just make sure you communicate that these periods—whether it’s watching a TV show, doing outdoor yoga, or just listening to music—are “your” time, so you’re creating a clear boundary. And don’t forget that you need other people to talk to as well. Whether you look into therapy for yourself or just set up regular phone dates with a friend, having a support system outside of your home is key, says Gersten.
Manage household responsibilities
Nearly every household task is compounded by the pandemic: more meals at home means more dishes, and more people in the house means more vacuuming and dusting, for just a few examples. But that doesn’t mean you should take on everything yourself, even if your partner is struggling with symptoms of depression. “It’s important to cut your partner some slack, but you can still ask what they do have the energy to help with,” says Gersten.
Also be mindful of giving yourself a break in terms of how much you can actually accomplish during these abnormal, often stressful times. “Look at the list of what you want to get done and prioritize what’s really important,” Gersten says. “It may mean the house isn’t as clean as it normally is because the priority needs to be home-schooling. That’s okay.” And if anything can be outsourced, such as getting your groceries delivered, Gersten says now is the time to do it.
And remember, says Dr. Langer, that the pandemic won’t last forever, meaning the layer of stress it’s added to many situations won’t necessarily be a complicating factor in other situations—like caring for a partner struggling with symptoms of depression—forever. So, to be the most effective support system you can be, listen but also know when and how to set boundaries to support yourself.
If someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A number of additional suicide prevention resources, including crisis hotlines, can be found here.
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