When Your Husband Struggles with Depression
By Cheri Fuller
Several years ago, my husband, Holmes, began skipping meals and losing weight. His laid-back temperament turned irritable and moody. He also became increasingly withdrawn and didn’t seem to enjoy things anymore.
I knew Holmes was encountering tough times as a homebuilder and I kept hoping he’d perk up if he got another construction job. I tried everything to cheer him up. I pointed out all the positive things he did. As the months rolled into years, neither my encouraging words or hard work to take up the slack in our income seemed to make a difference.
Seven years after I first noticed my husband’s struggles, our pastor realized from a conversation with Holmes that he was suicidal. He immediately made Holmes an appointment with a doctor who diagnosed him with clinical depression. The physician told us Holmes had probably been depressed for years. Situational depression caused by the crushing pressures of Holmes’s declining business, compounded by a genetic predisposition to clinical had pushed him to the edge. Perhaps if I’d known the clues, Holmes could have gotten help before his depression had become full-blown.
Depression in males is on the rise. That means countless wives face the challenge of trying to help a spouse who’s in emotional turmoil. There is help, there is hope, and there are ways you can support your spouse–and yourself.
CARING FOR YOUR HUSBAND
If the dark cloud of depression overtakes your spouse, how can you help him?
Recognize the signs.
It’s important to distinguish between situational depression triggered by something such as a job layoff, and clinical depression. Situational depression involves some of the same symptoms of clinical depression (see sidebar), but they’re of shorter duration and lower intensity. For example, if your husband’s depression is caused by a job loss, within six months he should regroup, recover his enjoyment of life, and move on. However, according to Michael Navarro, a licensed psychotherapist, clinical depression’s symptoms are more pronounced and last far longer. The absence of pleasure in the activities your husband once enjoyed is greater; his malaise, anger, or weight loss more substantial.
If your husband experiences a majority of the symptoms of depression, he needs professional help. Your family physician can determine what’s biological and what’s psychological; he may make a diagnosis of clinical depression, and refer your husband to a psychologist or psychiatrist for therapy and medication. In Holmes’s case, counseling and an antidepressant were helpful.
How would you know if your husband needs to be hospitalized? If he’s seeing a doctor, his physician would make that recommendation. Here are other clues that in-patient help is needed to stabilize your spouse: when he repeatedly cancels his counseling appointments or refuses help; when he digresses into a more nonfunctional state; or if he experiences severe weight loss or sudden gain. And–most important–if he makes statements such as, “I wish I wasn’t around,” or “You and the kids would be better off without me,” indicating suicidal thinking.
Accept and love your spouse.
Let your husband know you still love and accept him. “I’m not saying accepting is easy,” says psychologist Archibald Hart, author of Dark Clouds, Silver Linings. “But you have to accept the reality of the problem. Your responsibility is to communicate love and acceptance in whatever way you possibly can.” This could include a loving touch or hug, or gentle encouragement through a card or meaningful gift.
During one of Holmes’s darkest days, he said, “We–and I–may never be happy again; you’d be better off leaving.” I went in the other room, wept, and prayed for strength and the right response. A short time later, I sat down by Holmes and said, “Even if we’re never happy again, I’m committed to you for the rest of our lives. I’m not going anywhere.” This was a turning point for us. Holmes felt unconditionally loved and accepted right where he was.
While physical exercise can be an extra challenge to those struggling with depression, the endorphins create a natural mood-lifter. Gently encourage your husband to go for a walk, or to a gym, or do whatever activity he enjoys when he feels up to it.
When my husband and I took walks, he sometimes would open up. One night, I asked Holmes to give me a word picture of how he felt. “I feel like a vine’s wrapping itself around me; that it began at my feet and now is almost up to my neck, choking me.” It was hard to hear how terrible he felt, but it helped me understand a little of what he was going through.
Realize anger often accompanies depression.
But don’t allow your husband to disrespect or abuse you or your children. Be available to listen, but avoid trying to be his therapist. “A mate’s role is primarily one of support. The main therapeutic work needs to be done by a professional,” says Hart.
Whether your husband’s anger is rooted in grief and loss issues, unresolved childhood issues, failure, or job loss, he needs someone to talk to. Underneath most depression is anger over something.
Encourage fellowship with other men.
When Carrie’s husband went through a depressive period after a job loss, a small group of friends met with him weekly. They also kept him in their prayers. Their support was invaluable to his recovery.
Avoid using words that make him feel worse.
A man in depression doesn’t need to hear, “How can you be depressed with all God has done in our lives?” Avoid preaching: “Just read your Bible more and get right with God, and your depression will go away.” Refrain from belittling him or comparing him to others as in, “You know, Brian took St. John’s Wort and he bounced back from his depression in only three months.” One woman I know purposed to praise her husband for the baby steps he took in learning to trust God in the darkness.
CARING FOR YOURSELF
I became so emotionally and physically depleted during my husband’s depression that I began suffering from severe insomnia. I parented our teens and worried about our financial situation and my husband. I felt emotionally abandoned by Holmes and realized I harbored some anger as well. Sessions with a counselor and a support group helped me tremendously.
If you get support and deal with your issues, you’ll be able to help your husband and children. Here are some ways:
Ask for help.
When Brenda’s husband, Daryle, needed to be hospitalized for severe depression, she realized she couldn’t do everything alone. She found a student teacher to live with her family temporarily to help with her children. You may need help from a support group or prayer partners, and assistance with your children.
Consider counseling, because frequently the wife feels responsible for her husband’s depression. Find one trusted friend with whom you can cry, be real, and pray.
Don’t keep secrets.
When Liz’s husband’s life crashed around him due to clinical depression, one of the best things they did was to keep open communication with each other and their kids. They held family councils and talked over what was happening in age-appropriate ways, praying together during crises and ongoing struggles.
A word of caution: It’s best to clear this kind of family meeting first with your husband by saying, “Could you help me talk to the kids about your depression to let them know it’s not their fault, and that we’re all going to be healing together?” Your kids may need to talk to someone such as a youth pastor or counselor who can help them sort through their feelings. They also need to know they always can come to you to talk about the situation.
Remind yourself of God’s truth.
When Brenda was beset by fears, she told herself that God somehow would weave everything–even this depression–into a pattern for good (Rom. 8:28).
“So often we try to force our way out of a crisis,” Brenda says. “Instead, I began to embrace the situation and say, ‘Okay, God, what do you want me to learn in this?” Before, Daryle had been Brenda’s rock, but through this experience, Brenda learned to depend more on God. And as Daryle recovered, he developed an effective ministry with hurting people suffering from depression.
During her husband’s six-year depression, Liz created brief getaways from her family difficulties. Liz took long walks, singing hymns and praise choruses, sometimes crying tears and other times journaling her feelings. She took bubble baths to relax. She planned fun activities for her children. These short breaks refueled Liz for the challenges she faced.
Let prayer be your lifeline.
“Praying for those we love who are depressed is our best hope,” says Gerry Mensch, who not only survived her own depression but her husband’s as well. “Antidepressants can help, but some in the grip of depression refuse to seek help. If your husband won’t go for counseling, start praying he’ll wake up and ask for assistance, or that God will put a man in his life to steer him toward help.
Throughout Holmes’s depression, my lifeline was praying Scriptures for him such as Joel 2:25, which asks God to restore the wasted years; Colossians 1:9-12, to give my husband direction; Isaiah 61:1-3, to lift his heaviness of despair and replace it with praise and joy; and 1 Peter 4:8, to fill me with the love that covers a multitude of sins.
It took several years for Holmes to recover from depression, and as we prayed together, we experienced God’s grace for every situation. God was always faithful.
Today, when I see Holmes smile, I’m grateful for where he is now. I’m thankful for the things we learned and the comfort we received from God and others. I’m also glad we have an opportunity to share what we learned with others going through depression.