So, let’s continue with our exploration of mental illness in dating and relationships. Week 0 was an overview on why we’re doing this, Week 1 focused on anxiety disorders, Week 2 was devoted to social anxiety, which means Week 3 will focus on the big D.
Depression, along with anxiety, is one of the most prevalent mental disorders. About 16-17% of people will experience real depression in their lifetime. In the world of disorders, that’s a LOT of people.
According to Psychiatry.org, depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home. Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include:
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Most people don’t really get what depression is. It isn’t sadness, it isn’t a cranky mood, and it isn’t grief resulting from painful life events (such as divorce or the loss of a job). These things can make you feel low, for sure, but depression is much more than that. Sadness and cranky moods happen to everyone, but they go away and they don’t interfere with your ability to function in any long-term or significant way. A divorce or other major loss can result in depression, but that’s a situational depression that will eventually resolve itself. Depression, on the other hand, can strike at any time and without any clear reason. And, if bad enough, if can make life not worth living.
The symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe. Like with anxiety disorders, depression often requires treatment. In milder cases, treatment can include natural remedies (exercise, vitamins, etc). However, thoughts of suicide or symptoms that prevent a person from functioning in their everyday lives indicate more severe pathology, and often need more formal treatments such as therapy and medication. For example, some depressed people have a difficult time getting out of bed. They may have a difficult time concentrating on work or find it difficult to deal with children. Their mood swings may have a detrimental effect on their relationships. When these things happen, it’s time to seek treatment.
The confusing part is that depression isn’t static. It can come and go. Just when you think all is well, the low moods return. This is why many don’t recognize they have depression, because they feel normal for a while and then just grit their teeth through the hard times.
What Depression Looks Like in Relationships
From personal experience, I’ve found that looking at a list of symptoms is different than what depression looks like in real people. Plus, those in a relationship with a person who suffers from depression will see their darker side, the one they hide from others. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known who seem “fine,” just to have their partners tell me what they’re like behind closed doors. People often hide their depression, because they don’t want to be judged or pitied or given dumb advice to “shake it off.”
So what behaviors might you see in a depressed partner? People who suffer from depression can be chronically negative about life and about people. They can be irritable, cranky, and downright mean for what seems like no good reason. They can be flat and emotionless and uninterested in anything, including things they used to enjoy. They may withdraw socially, not wanting to be around people or not wanting to leave the house. They can blame themselves for things that go wrong in their lives, things that aren’t their fault. They can take painful events harder than the rest of us; what hurts us only temporarily can devastate them or haunt them over time. They can be tired and lethargic, not wanting to exercise or move, as if someone stole all their energy. They may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol (in fact, addictions are commonly found among those with mental illness).
I know something about depression. It runs in my family and I’m prone to it myself. Mine is on the mild side and thus manageable, but it comes and goes in unpredictable ways and it impacts everything I do. I’ll talk more about that some other time.
Depression can have a huge impact on relationships. You won’t often see that someone is depressed during dating, as the excitement of dating and the plethora of neurotransmitters that flood your body when you meet someone you really like can prove to be the most potent antidepressant around. Given that depression involves low levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, this totally makes sense. However, the high won’t last. The signs of depression won’t often show up until you get to know the person more, or when the high of falling in love gives way to the more everyday realities of being in a relationship. That’s when the mood swings or symptoms may start to emerge.
The problem with depression, like any mental disorder, is that many people who suffer from it either don’t know they have it, or they do know but refuse to get treatment. And like with any mental disorder, that shit’s not going to go away on its own. If you suffer from depression or show signs of it, educate yourself. Learn about the signs and symptoms. Find out about treatment options and things you can do at home to help. Learn your triggers. The onus is on you to face what you’re dealing with and get it treated. Otherwise, at best, your depression will strain your relationship. At worst, it will ruin it altogether.
If you’re dating or involved with someone with depression, avoid offering up advice that doesn’t help. Telling a depressed person to “cheer up” or “be happy,” or worse, saying that “everyone has their ups and downs” not only doesn’t help, it’s downright insulting. Everyone does have their ups and downs, but depressed people have them much worse and they have little control over them without treatment. Believe me, if they could just “be happy” or have a better attitude, they would. Also, try not to take their behavior during a down phase personally. It’s not you, it’s the depression. At the same time, it’s important to hold them responsible for dealing with their shit. It’s their job to seek treatment and to learn coping mechanisms. It’s your job to learn more about depression and educate yourself on how to cope with your partner.
Feel free to comment. What is your experience with depression or dating someone who has it?