I was home alone but I still found myself looking over my shoulder as I typed it into Google: “How to support a partner with depression”. I hit backspace and went in for a second attempt: “How to know if your partner has depression.”
It was a stiflingly hot Sunday in July and though I didn’t know it yet, I was two days away from the most painful breakup of my life. What I did know was that my boyfriend Matt* needed help. And I was starting to fear he was choosing to push me away than address the real problem behind his sudden withdrawal into the distant, uncommunicative, emotionally-unavailable stranger he’d become in recent months.
I think somewhere, deep down, I’d known Matt might have had depression. Or at least a capacity for it. The way he would charm my friends, flatmates, parents — even strangers in bar — yet barely manage a smile or a word with me behind-closed-doors. The way he lost interest in affection and the football and hockey-playing that used to make him happy, yet denied anything was wrong. The way he spoke of his father’s dual personality before he took his own life, yet he could not see how obvious those two personalities were in himself.
It was a friend who finally raised the D-word: depression wasn’t an excuse, she told me, but at least it could offer an explanation for the months of withdrawal, the lack of communication, the way he would look at me blankly as I stood there in front of him in tears. It suddenly seemed so obvious when she spelled it out. How had I not considered it sooner?
It’s been two months since mine and Matt’s relationship eventually broke down and I can now see that he was protecting himself. Pushing me away. Stopping me from getting too close and having to admit the real problem going on behind the scenes. The problem that affects so many of us — one in six UK adults, according to latest studies — yet many, particularly men, don’t feel able to talk about or admit.
Indeed, Matt was hardly alone in his struggle to open up. Studies show that men are generally more reluctant to seek a doctor than women , with research in the British Medical Journal finding that general primary care consultation rates were 32 per cent lower in men than women.
“While it’s clearly a gross generalisation to say women are more willing to talk about emotions and that men tend to bottle them up, many studies have looked at how over long periods of time society has encouraged men to be ‘strong’ and not admit they’re struggling by talking openly to others,” says Dr Sarah Perkins, Clinical Psychologist at Schoen Clinic Chelsea. “There can be a sense that we condition boys from a very young age to not express emotion, because to express emotion is to be ‘weak’, and that this is not seen as a desirable male characteristic.”
Dr Perkins suggests that the reason men seek help for depression less often isn’t because they can deal with the problems better, but because they’re less used to recognising the warning signs — often leaving partners, family and friends like me to have to spot them instead. According to Later Living Marketplace Lottie, there’s been a surge in depression-related Google searches in the last 12 months, with a 50 per cent rise in searches for “signs your partner is depressed” and a 24 per cent increase in searches for “living with a depressed partner”.
So what are those signs and what can partners, friends and family do to help? Here’s what I wish I’d known sooner.
Signs your loved one might be struggling with depression
Feeling upset or numb
While sadness, teariness and hopelessness are common among people with depression, others — particularly men — can go the opposite way: even as our relationship was breaking down and I was becoming more and more visibly upset, he’d look at me robotically, as though he’d turned off his emotions and he couldn’t understand why I was feeling things so strongly.
Neuropsychologist Dr Rachel Taylor, founder of UNBroken, says this is common — feelings of emptiness and numbness are classic symptoms of depression just as much as anger, irritability and being upset. The Laura Hyde Foundation recently released a two-minute film about some of the emotional signs to look for when it comes to depression, based on real-life feelings from frontline healthcare workers. You can watch it here.
Lack of empathy and connection
When I first met Matt, I told my parents he was the most emotionally intelligent man I’d ever met. He was brilliant at picking up on my feelings and notably empathetic compared to ex-boyfriends. So when he stopped acknowledging or responding to my feelings altogether, I knew something was wrong.
People with depression often isolate themselves, which can translate into what seems like selfish behaviour
Again, Taylor says this is common. People with depression often isolate themselves and find themselves unable to connect or relate to others, which can translate into what seems like selfish behaviour: cancelling on important occasions, not picking up on people’s feelings, not asking others if they are OK.
A loss of sex drive and intimacy
It’s not just the emotional connection I lost with Matt, but the physical one. He eventually stopped all forms of physical affection and seemed uninterested in sex. I worried he was cheating or didn’t fancy me anymore, but Abdullah Boulad, behavioural expert and founder of mental health clinic The Balance, tells me this is normal too.
“When someone is depressed they may feel as though they are a thousand miles away,” he says. “They often hold back from intimate touching, kissing cuddling or sex.”
Lack of confidence and self-esteem
Another common symptom is worthlessness or a sense of confidence, says Taylor. “Depression can really affect people’s self esteem, leaving a person feeling despairing of themselves and life in general. At the extreme a person can feel suicidal or even self-harm as a coping strategy to deal with these difficult feelings,” she says. According to latest data, 77 per cent of all suicides are committed by men.
Withdrawal from friends and family
The Matt I fell in love with was one of the most sociable people I knew, but by the end he’d distanced himself from many of them, telling me he didn’t think they had much in common anymore; that he couldn’t be bothered to go out of his way to see them. Experts say this is a common sign someone is struggling — particularly men.
A recent survey found that one in five men have no close friends — twice the proportion than for women
A recent YouGov survey found that one in five men have no close friends — twice the proportion than for women — and a similar poll from the Movember Foundation suggests that every man in three has no close friends. Author Max Dickins talks about this in his book about men’s friendship problem. “Research shows that when men retire, get divorced, or suffer bereavement, they experience worse mental and physical health outcomes than women because they are more isolated,” he wrote in the Evening Standard last month.
Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
Socialising. Football. Cooking. For the first nine months of our relationship, Matt exercised every day, saw friends several times a week, invited me over for dinner whenever we had a free evening. Then, almost overnight, he started to withdraw. He wasn’t bothered about meeting up with friends, chose to scroll on his phone instead of exercising, and told me we shouldn’t see each other as often anymore because he wanted more early nights.
Smriti Joshi, a mental health therapist and Lead Psychologist at mental health app Wysa, says these are all classic signs of depression — partners should try not to take them personally. “It’s tough at this time of year, as getting up in the dark can be hard, but perhaps they are showing less enthusiasm for the day than previously, or sleeping more,” she says. “As your partner is someone you are close to, think about how they usually act, and if things are different.”
A sense of hopelessness
It’s not just in-the-moment enjoyment people with depression can lose, but future enjoyment too. Max Eames, clinical director of the Wellbeing and Psychological Services Centre at University of East London, says he often hears people who are struggling with depression or low mood ask “what’s the point?”. This sense of hopelessness and helplessness is often attended by “irritability, being intolerant of you or other family members, and feeling anxious, preoccupied, or worried,” he says.
Changes in diet, sleep, habits and routines
Sleeping more or less. Quitting exercising or excercising to the extreme. Skipping meals. “Everyone’s experience of depression is unique, so it’s important to look for a change in their behaviour and routine,” says Will Donnelly, Care Expert and Co-Founder of Later Living Marketplace Lottie.
While Matt started sleeping more and quit football, others might go the opposite way and take up extreme exercise in an unhealthy way, or start staying up late on their phone. “If your partner or loved one is sleeping more, keeping up less with hygiene practices (brushing their teeth, for example), or abandoning tasks and work, they may be depressed.”
Starting to use drugs and alcohol or or using them more
For me, the final red flag was a drunk phone call late on a Sunday night, before an important day at work. Matt rarely drank and he’d drink very little when he did, so hearing him end the call to run off to be sick after weeks of uncharacteristically distant behaviour was another sign something was wrong. “If someone begins to use drugs and alcohol to escape their moods, they seem imbalanced when intoxicated or begin using when alone, these can be signs that someone may need help,” says Boulad.
What do you if your partner is displaying signs of depression
Listen, ask questions and don’t make them feel judged
Depression is a sensitive subject and latest research shows that 40 per cent of men refuse to talk about their mental health — so diving straight in with assumptions that they could be depressed probably won’t help the situation, even if you feel certain of it yourself. Instead, take it slow and be careful of language, say experts. Joshi says it’s all about creating a safe space to talk: “listen more than you speak”, and when you do speak, try to have an open, conversational chat and “ask questions without interrogating or making them feel judged.”
Don’t say: “you’re probably just tired”, “you need to help yourself”, or “you need to look on the bright side”. These phrases can come across as though you’re dismissing their feelings and symptoms, says Donnelly.
Use phrases such as: ‘I’m here for you’, ‘how are you feeling today?’ and ‘I’ve noticed a change, would you like to talk about it?’
Instead, allow your loved one to pace the conversation, try to make them feel comfortable, and use phrases such as: “I’m here for you”, “we will get through this together,” “how can I help?”, “how are you feeling today?”, “I’ve noticed a change, would you like to talk about it?” and “is anything happening that makes you not want to go out on Friday?”.
“Although there are signs [of depression] to look out for, it also could be something else or a short term stress that is causing something to feel off, so always speak to your partner about how they may be feeling rather than how you think they may be feeling,” says Positive Psychology Coach Rebecca Lockwood. Instead of saying: “You are not feeling right”, she suggests asking “how are you feeling today?” If you want to, add: “I am asking because I am not sure if everything is ok?”.
“The best thing you can do is to sit calmly with them, be present in the moment, and listen to them if they open up to you,” says Donnelley. “Talk about what you are noticing, but with a mindset of curiosity, rather than saying: ‘What’s wrong with you?’” adds Eames. “Remember that low self-esteem often accompanies depression, so framing your worry as concern will be received as much more helpful... Someone who is depressed can’t just snap out of it, so that kind of language will be poorly received and cause a person to clam up.”
It’s a fine line, but try to be thoughtful about your language without seeming as though you’re tiptoeing around your loved one and treating them in a strange way. “Being straight is the best way to go, in my clinical experience,” says Eames.
“I see a lot of family members tiptoeing around with the partners or loved ones, and that’s never the right thing.” The better solution? Checking in with frequent and consistent communication. This way, you’ll create “progress”, which may allow your partner to see what is happening and consider wider help.
Sit with them in their pain
Helping and supporting someone is important, but trying to “solve” your loved one’s problems or provide answers doesn’t always help, says Taylor — particularly if they haven’t come to terms with the problem themself yet. “It is an essential part of the human condition to just be acknowledged and accepted as you are in that moment,” she says.
“The greatest gift that we can give someone is to see them and hear them and not try to problem solve or provide answers; to sit with someone in their pain, literally next to them and to not try to rush them, or fix them, or make them feel like they are responsible for how we feel is a huge part of allowing that person to feel like a human being.”
She suggests telling your partner: “I see you, I hear you and I love you just as you are. I am here for you and I will sit by you however you are feeling.”
Don’t be put off if they withdraw
When I first raised the issue with Matt, I hoped for a quick fix — everyone says talking is the answer, so why did he seem to be withdrawing further? Joshi says it’s important not to be put off if your partner or loved one withdraws a little at first — that’s normal.
Try to set aside your frustration if you get the equivalent of shrugged shoulders
“People can be embarrassed about being depressed, or might not even realise they are. They might put it down to work, or winter, without realising its severity,” she says. Eames agrees. “Try to set aside your frustration if you get the equivalent of shrugged shoulders,” he says. “If that’s what you get, it’s better not to keep poking around, and maybe you will find a better moment at a different time of the day.”
Don’t blame them
Matt’s withdrawal translated into other behaviours: he became uncommunicative and I struggled to connect. Taylor points out that while extreme and unhealthy behaviour like gaslighting is never acceptable and should not be misconstrued as a hallmark of depression, mental health can obviously affect relationships.
The key — if possible — is not to blame your partner, says Boulad. Though you might feel valid in sticking up for yourself, it’ll probably only make things worse as “your partner may just end up feeling attacked or completely misunderstood”.
But don’t blame yourself either
The key for a partner is not to position yourself as the rescuer or the saviour, says Taylor. “Don’t take responsibility for how the depressed partner is feeling,” she says. “It is not your fault that they feel like that“. Instead, what you can control is how you look after yourself along the way. Taylor says the key is to make your own wellbeing just as important as your partners’ — not only because your wellness is a priority, but because the better you are, the better you’ll be able to support your partner.
She recommends “taking time out, giving yourself adequate nutrition and hydration, getting good daylight at the right time and raising your heart rate for at least 10 minutes a day”, as well as establishing connections outside of your relationship who can support and listen to you, too. Seek professional support yourself if you need to, adds Joshi, and plan in whatever makes you feel good, like doing a guided meditation or going for a swim.
Talk about mental health in a positive way
“Mental health seems to be always perceived in a negative way, but mental health isn’t always bad,” says Lockwood. “If we think about our physical health then we think of being healthy and it’s much easier to talk about, but for some reason mental health seems to be the opposite. We need to be able to have these conversations as a society because the fact that we cannot have them in itself can create a negative mindset causing negative and poor mental health.”
Encourage them to get professional support
You can’t force someone to get help, but you can gently suggest it. Donnelly and Joshi recommend encouraging your loved one to speak to their GP. “Let them know it’s OK to take time off from work if needed,” adds Joshi. She and her fellow experts also recommend apps like Wysa and My Possible Self, which make it easy to get get clinically-validated mental health support in a discrete way.
Organise everyday things you think they will enjoy
Your loved one might not be getting excited about their previous hobbies, but see if you can find small moments of joy and book them in. “Put things in the diary that won’t cause too much anxiety or stress, such as a film night at home, or cooking together,” says Joshi. Eames agrees. He suggests engaging in small, frequent activites with them. “This could be things like going for a walk or cooking together.
These things can be done collaboratively and offer a purpose, meaning and enjoyment, while providing a time and space to talk. Activity levels are likely to plummet with depression and low mood, as are everyday routines. Small reintroductions of both can create gradual lifts in mood.”
Hugging releases oxytocin which lowers the stress hormone cortisol
Try a more anti-inflammatory diet
Most methods of supporting someone with depression are emotional, but some can be practical, says Taylor. She suggests starting to include more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet as a couple or as a family. “There is a lot of research that is highlighting the correlation between depression and inflammation,” she says. She suggests including foods such as nuts, seeds and oily fish in your diet. Make turmeric teas and lattes (using almond milk), have nourishing bone broth. “It will be difficult at first to support a depressed person in thinking well of themselves but use baby steps of encouragement.”
Encourage them to organise “worry time”
Planning to worry might sound counterintuitive, but we all do it anyway, “ so why fight it?” asks Michael Pulman, a clinical hypnotherapist and anxiety Coach who’s worked with a range of celebrities and sports stars struggling with depression. Pulman suggests encouraging your loved one to schedule a 20-minute worry window into their day, as they would events, appointments or meetings. “List all your worries and work through them. You might find they weren’t such a worry after all,” he says. “After the 20 minutes move forward with your day. You’ll soon learn not to allow worrying to take up your day.”
Don’t underestimate hugs
Hugs aren’t just a good way of showing someone you care, but there’s a scientific reason behind their power, too, says Pulman. “Hugging releases oxytocin which lowers the stress hormone cortisol,” he says. Don’t underestimate them.
*Names have been changed to protect identities