The promises we make in marriage seem easy when we are caught up in the newness of love. “In sickness and in health” rolls off our nervous tongues without realizing just how hard it can be to love and support our spouse when they are ill. Just a month after we married, with our last college classes in full swing, Mark & I both got sick. Every dish we owned was dirty, as neither one of us had the energy to clean up the mess. It was tough for a few days, but we knew it would pass. It was a story we could tell soon after, and laugh at how awful we both looked for a few days.
Mental illness looks like you & me
But for some, illness is not physical, it's psychological, and the dynamics shift dramatically. The person you fell in love with has become a shell of the person you knew. Or their mood changes suddenly, or they become extremely irritable for no reason. I have known of couples splitting up because “he's crazy” or “she's flippin nuts”–a characterization that maintains the myths that surround mental illness.
Given the reality that 1 in 5 Americans suffer from a mental disorder in a given year, and 1 in 8 or 9* adults suffer from major depression, the odds are pretty good that most of us will experience psychological symptoms at some point in our lives–either our spouse, our friends or family, or you who is reading this post. (*The statistics vary but range from 8-10%. People who are severely depressed don't respond to questionnaires—they may barely get out of bed.) (https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers/General-MH-Facts-4-12-15.pdf)
In Christian circles, it can be especially difficult–ironically. Mental disorders are often misunderstood, waved off under the heading of “lack of faith”, leaving the individual feeling even more isolated or hopeless. Those that struggle with depression or anxiety, or other psychological disorders know how desperately they want to feel better–to feel light and happy, or peaceful and calm. Many withdraw on their worst days, unable to face anyone and try to appear “normal”.
Ways to help
As the spouse of someone struggling with depression, or other disorder, you likely find yourself at a loss as to what to do. This was definitely not covered in your premarital sessions, and is rarely talked about in church. So what in the world do you do when the one you promised to love has changed before your very eyes and you don't know what's ahead?
Here are some thoughts on how to support them:
1. Seek professional help: Sometimes it may take some trial and error to find a counselor, social worker, or psychologist that the individual feels they can trust. Mild symptoms may resolve with time, but when symptoms interfere with one's ability to function daily for more than 2 weeks, it is time to seek help. It is NOT weakness to get help. Imagine a person having a heart attack, and responding, “I'll just see if it passes.” That usually doesn't turn out well.
In more serious situations, it may take a team of professionals working together to develop a treatment plan for the individual. If the individual is resistant to getting help, offer to go with them as a way of validating them. Let them know that you are on their team and will do whatever it takes to support them. If they are too overwhelmed to even begin looking, offer to screen some options and find out how treatment is covered. The individual is likely to feel guilty about the expense or time involved, but it's a perfect opportunity to remind them that you hope they would do the same for you. This is when love gets real.
2. Education is the antidote for ignorance: Once there is a diagnosis, educate yourself about the disorder. Contact national organizations to find out about support groups that may be offered in your area. Become an advocate for your spouse when they can't .
3. Communicate/stay connected: This is probably the hardest, yet most important thing you can focus on as the spouse. On good days, spend some time talking about what your spouse needs–what is helpful, and what makes them feel worse. Be specific; write down a strategy, and safety agreement. Use “I” language: “When you stay in bed all day, I don't know whether to leave you alone or try to get you up. It scares me…I'm worried about you, and I feel helpless.”
It can be very, very hard to be with someone who is extremely depressed. Avoiding them tends to reinforce their belief that they are unlovable. Knowing some ways to stay connected can be lifesaving…literally. Even if you are away, a text that says, “I love you” or “I'm with you in this” can be a lifeline.
4. Speak truth and pray: read scripture or favorite book passages to them. Pray for them, out loud. There is something very powerful about someone praying on your behalf. Remember the story of the men that couldn't get their paralyzed friend to Jesus because of the crowds, so they cut a hole in the roof and lowered him down? (Mark 2) Even when your spouse feels unable to reach out to God, you can be the one that reminds them of the truth, even when they don't feel it.
5. Develop a support system: Are there a few friends or family that can be support for both of you? Seek wisdom and support from someone that will understand, and not judge. Resist the temptation to compare your marriage to your friends. Everyone has something they are struggling with–if not now, then at some point in the future. No matter how “perfect” someone else's life appears, things aren't always the way they look. Stay focused on doing everything you can to create a safe, loving environment for both of you.
6. Learn to find something to be grateful for every day. Keep a gratitude journal. Sometimes it's what we focus on that makes the difference.
It won't always be this hard, so have courage and love with your whole heart.
[reminder]How has depression or other mental health issue affected you?[/reminder]