Have you ever embarked on a road trip with a friend who turned out to be a less-than-ideal companion? Imagine that the trip starts out just fine, but after a few hours, your friend’s personality seems to change. She turns quiet and inexplicably falls into a bad mood. You try to joke around and put on some fun road trip music, but she wraps herself in sullen silence and stares out the window; if she responds at all, it is in single syllables. You stop at a cute roadside diner for coffee and apple pie, which cheers her up for a short while. However, an hour later, a tearful argument ensues about how she hates apple pie and actually wanted a blueberry muffin. You try to find out what is bothering her, but she denies that anything is wrong. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to dispel the dark mood in your car. In the end, you give up and keep to yourself, counting the hours to your destination.
Given the behavioral symptoms of mood swings, withdrawal, unprovoked aggression and denial, your imaginary road trip companion likely suffers from untreated depression. A trip comes with a predetermined end point where you part ways with your travel companion—but what if it is your husband or wife who behaves in this way? What if you cannot simply get out of the car, wave goodbye, and swear to never again take them along?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 7.1 percent of the adult population in America were diagnosed with a major depressive episode in 2017. That means that about 17.3 million people in the U.S. alone were going through depressive moods for weeks or even months at a time.
Yet, it is not only the diagnosed (and many more undiagnosed) individuals who are affected by depression’s wide array of symptoms. Their families also have to deal with what the award-winning author Ann Sheffield has called “depression fallout.”
Sheffield explains the phenomenon in the following way: “Depression fallout, provoked by prolonged proximity to someone depressed, is the unhappy progression from initial confusion to self-blame, then to demoralization, then to resentment and anger, and finally to the desire to escape the source of so much stress and unhappiness.” It is not uncommon for loved ones of depression sufferers to mirror their symptoms, to the point that they are diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression themselves. Ultimately, the desire to escape an unbearable family situation often leads to a complete family breakdown and divorce. In that sense, depression very much is a “home-wrecker.”
If you are affected by depression fallout, there are some things that you can do to keep it together until professional help arrives and treatment takes effect.
- In all likelihood, the most difficult step will be to overcome the depressed partner’s denial and to get them to seek professional help and treatment. Depression is a curious disease in that the sufferer’s denial of its existence constitutes one of its symptoms. A long journey still awaits once this hurdle has been overtaken, but at least you two have taken the first strides.
- While you must not make it your responsibility “to fix your partner”—as the old adage goes, they can only “fix themselves”—there are still ways in which you can support your depressed partner’s treatment: Familiarize yourself with the disease and its symptoms. By doing this, you can try to understand not only what your depressed partner is going through, but also your own reactions and emotions. If needed, assist with scheduling therapy appointments. Because the disease impacts your entire family, the therapist may want you to come along for a few sessions. Check in with your partner to see whether they keep up with their medications. Ensure that they eat foods and take vitamins and supplements (as approved by their doctor and/or therapist) that support depression treatment.
- You need to set boundaries. Talk to your depressed partner about which behaviors you will not tolerate—for example, giving you the silent treatment for days on end, or disrespectful communication with you and/or your children. In the worst-case scenario, you may need to set a boundary or deadline for yourself to decide when to pull the plug on the relationship. Yes, this is a difficult and sad decision, and one that ended a chapter in my life-story, too… As my own therapist at that point reassured over and over, there is no need to feel guilty about such a decision because no one—especially not children—deserves to suffer under the depression of a partner who refuses to seek treatment.
- As difficult as it may be, pay attention to your own well-being. Find ways to replenish the physical and mental strength you need to keep going. For some people, this could mean attending to your own nutritional needs, getting enough sleep or making time for activities you enjoy, and carving out stress-free time with your family.
- Create a support network of people you trust. This may be adult family members, friends, a therapist of your own, support groups, and mental health organizations. Remember that there are millions of depression fallout sufferers who saw their partners regain their health and managed to rekindle the love that brought them together in the first place, or found the courage to move forward with their own lives.
Ann Sheffield, “Depression Fallout: Solutions for a Marriage Sabotaged by Depression,” www.parentguidenews.com/Articles/DepressionFallout
Ann Sheffield, Depression Fallout: The Impact of Depression on Couples and What You Can Do to Preserve the Bond (William Morrow, 2003).
Ann Sheffield, How You Can Survive When They’re Depressed: Living and Coping with Depression Fallout (Harmony, 1999).
Jodi Helmer, “Relationships and the Ripple Effect of Depression,” https://www.hopetocope.com/relationships-the-ripple-effect-of-depression/
 Ann Sheffield, “Depression Fallout: Solutions for a Marriage Sabotaged by Depression,” www.parentguidenews.com/Articles/DepressionFallout
 The National Institute of Mental Health (www.nihm.nih.org) and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (https://adaa.org) are good places to start, as they offer many resources. Mental health professionals will also know about support groups in your area, or online.
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