Tim and Sandra sit close together on their porch swing, holding hands. It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, they’d discussed selling their house, splitting their possessions and sharing custody of their three children. The couple explains that a common but treatable illness nearly destroyed their strong 12-year marriage.
"I remember the day it started," Tim says. "I walked into the kitchen one morning and Sandy was just sitting on the floor. She was still in her bathrobe, and her eyes were swollen from crying."
When Tim asked what was wrong, Sandra told him she honestly didn’t know. Their lives were good. They weren’t struggling financially or having problems with the kids. She knew there was no reason to cry, yet the tears returned every morning from then on. Her concentration began to slip as well, leading to mistakes that almost cost her a job she loved. Finally, Tim insisted she see a doctor.
"I sure didn’t like the diagnosis," Sandra explains, shaking her head. "I expected him to give me vitamins or tell me not to work so hard. I never anticipated what he would actually suggest."
After several tests, Sandra’s doctor told her he believed she was suffering from a depressive disorder. He explained that our bodies need to maintain stable levels of the chemical serotonin to function normally — but the receptors in Sandra’s brain were blocking its flow to certain areas. When he suggested she try an anti-depressant drug to trigger proper serotonin absorption, she refused.
"I left his office feeling conflicted," Sandra says. "Tim and I were both raised to believe that true Christians were happy, thankful people. I was convinced that my misery was caused by a lack of faith, not a medical condition. But truthfully, I wasn’t sure which option scared me more. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell Tim that the doctor had called my mental health into question."
Over the next few months, Sandra tried to bury her secret — but her sorrow was too pervasive to hide. Their frightened children began asking what was wrong with Mom.
In the meantime, Tim admits his concern turned to frustration. "I’d ask again and again what was wrong, but she never had an answer," he says. "Not only was I aggravated by my feelings of helplessness, I was angry the life I’d worked so hard to provide wasn’t enough to make her happy."
"And the more angry he got, the more he’d withdraw from me," Sandra adds. "Then I’d feel guilty and withdraw even more. We just kept drifting further apart."
Despite her efforts to pray during that time, Sandra admits she found it almost impossible to muster the strength or the words. She felt she was not only losing her mind and her family, but now even God had abandoned her.
Tim and Sandra’s story likely rings true for many couples. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five adults in America will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Women face these illnesses twice as often as men, but statistics show men are highly under-diagnosed due to an unwillingness to admit they’re struggling.
Stigmas and misconceptions often prevent those with depressive illnesses (which often include anxiety and panic) from getting treatment. For some, words like mental illness and therapy still evoke images of patients in strait jackets or neurotic movie characters with phobias of germs, elevators and their shadows. In reality, depression can be much less obvious. Even so, it still debilitates and destroys its victims if left untreated.
A few key signs of depression are:
- Daily sadness
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Restless, anxious or irritable behavior
- Trouble concentrating, focusing or remembering
- Excessive weariness and lethargy
- Sleeping or eating too much or too little
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Thoughts of suicide or death
If you recognize any of these symptoms persisting in a spouse for more than a few weeks, check with your family doctor.
Preparing Yourself to Help Your Loved One
Flight attendants always tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone next to you. In the same way, it’s important to prepare yourself before attempting to assist others when a spouse is depressed. Deep sorrow can be infectious, and it’s not uncommon for caregivers to develop symptoms of depression themselves. Guard against this possibility by eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and staying in the Word.
Also keep an eye on your kids. Children are often vulnerable to a parent’s anxiety. One study indicates that 20% of 10-year-olds whose mothers suffered from depression were themselves victims within five years.
Don’t underestimate the value of caring friends and family at times like this. Let loved ones help you with day-to-day tasks, and allow them to listen to and pray with you. The surest way to intensify your struggle is to isolate yourself and your immediate family from those who love you.
Reaching Out to Your Spouse
When a care-giver understands that clinical depression is a genuine medical condition, he or she may actually feel empowered. It’s encouraging to realize there are a number of tangible ways to help a spouse who is depressed:
Pray fervently with and for them. Share meaningful Scripture verses.
Tell your loved one to just pray about it or make them feel like healing would come if they'd simply trust God more.
Help them see that the family needs them to get well.
Make them feel guilty for the impact of their illness on the family.
Listen; give credibility to their feelings.
Blame or criticize them.
Seek help for yourself and offer to see a therapist with them.
Imply that they need help because they're weak. Also, don't immediately exclude other family members from counseling. Sometimes, complex relational issues involving several family members can spark depression.
Encourage them to consider medication; research shows that 80% of those suffering from depressive disorders can be treated successfully with modern medications.
Expect medication to solve everything. Also, don't discount the need for prayer — and possibly therapy.
Show affection; encourage them to get out and do things with you.
Let them continue in a pattern of sleep and isolation.
A Happy Ending
Once Tim and Sandra overcame their fears and misconceptions about mental illness, they began to counsel with their pastor each week. Sandra also returned to the doctor. Within a few months, she felt like herself again, thanks to a low dosage of a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI). The medication helped bring her serotonin levels back into balance. Their children were thrilled to see Mom smiling again.
The couple, now co-leading a mental illness support group at their church, discovered that they could survive depression with teamwork, education, empathy and a lot of prayer.
"The Lord has really blessed us by allowing this experience to bring us together rather than tear us apart," Sandra says. "When times were toughest, Tim decided not to give up on me — and that decision has radically changed our lives."