Gwen (right) and her husband

My husband has lived with depression since he was a teenager. I knew this about him before we got married but didn’t really know what it would mean for us. Six months after our wedding, he hit a serious low point.

It took me – and him – months to realize he was facing serious depression and needed to seek help. At that time, I found it really hard to talk with him about it. I mostly held my breath and hoped our situation would get better.

With therapy and medication, he gradually came back to a healthier place and we learned together how to work through those challenging times. Since then, his depression has been more serious sometimes but hardly an issue at others. He has been able to have a successful career, raise kids, stay close to family, and have fun with friends. But we are ever-watchful.

For him, depression typically doesn’t have an obvious trigger or reason. There are signs that help me realize he may be entering a depressive episode.  First, I’ll notice his nighttime sleep is choppy so he’s tired and needs daytime naps. Going to a restaurant or grocery shopping will feel too taxing for him. He’ll talk less and spend more time on the computer.

During these times, my instinct is to ask questions. “What’s happening? How do you feel? Is it like the last time? Should we call someone?” I always want him to take action right away – to see his psychiatrist for a medication adjustment or go to therapy more. But often he’s not ready for those steps just yet.

Luckily, over the years I’ve learned a better approach when it comes to communicating with my husband about his depression. Here’s some advice.

  • Be thoughtful about your timing. My husband is a night owl and I am a morning person. So, late at night, I get teary and upset easily, and in the morning he’s not open to anything before his first cup of coffee. Lunchtime chats or even a text message later works for us. And I try to read his non-verbal cues before I bring up thorny subjects.
  • A change of scenery and movement helps. A ride in the car, a walk with the dog – being out of the house and not looking directly at each other works well for us. Experiment to see what works best for you.
  • It’s okay to speak up, even if it makes everyone uncomfortable. If I wait for the just right moment, it may never come. As we heard on an FFDA webinar with Chris Segrin, PhD, many people hesitate to bring up their concerns, especially when their spouse or family member is highly sensitive to criticism. Segrin’s counsel was that “you set the tone, and keep on trying.”
  • Agree to a game plan when things are good. It’s much easier to talk about depression when your loved one is feeling well. We agreed after that episode early in our marriage that I have permission to raise the flag when I see signs of depression in my husband.
  • Find help for you. Whether it’s a therapist, a support group, or a non-judgemental friend, you need to find a place where you can relieve some stress by openly speaking about what’s happening. You can also work through how you can best help your spouse.

Conversation Starters

Segrin reminds us that our words can offer our loved one an “off ramp.” It’s likely they want to change things but are just struggling to get there. Here are some ways to open up conversations.

  • “You don’t seem like yourself lately. Would it help to talk through how you’re feeling?”
  • “I notice you are sleeping more than usual. Any thoughts on why?”
  • “You had said you wanted to reach out to your therapist. Did you have a chance to call today?”
  • “You were short with me earlier. Is something more is going on with you?”
  • “I noticed you didn’t take your medication. Would it be helpful if I set a reminder for you?”
  • “I’m taking a short walk and I would appreciate your company.”
  • “I love you and I am worried about you.”

The final thing Segrin advises is to be grateful in the moment and to stay in the present. For me, this means resisting the thought “this is like before” and trying to recognize the good that is happening every day. That’s easier when I remember that we will move through these periods of deeper depression and come out stronger on the other side.

Gwen Gulick is a board member for Families for Depression Awareness. She and her husband have been married since 2000 and have two teenagers.