Last updated: Sep 16, 2010
The first week was “bliss,” says Molly, now 28. (She asked that her last name not be used.) The second week was a different story. “The symptoms started and got progressively worse, to the point that I was just crying all day every day,” she says. “[I] didnt want to go anywhere or see anyoneincluding my own family.”
Although her husband has never had a problem with depression, her mood affected him too. “He is a fixer and hates it when there is a problem he cant fix,” she says. “He was definitely down.”
If you have a loved one with serious depression, you may end up in a dark mood yourself, with depression symptoms like irritability, sadness, and anger. In fact, social networks research has found that those who have a spouse, sibling, or friend whos depressed are nearly twice as likely to be depressed themselves.
“Someones hopelessness and despair can profoundly affect the world of families and partners,” says Dana C. Jack, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, and the author of Silencing the Self: Women and Depression.
You cant “catch” depression like the common cold, of course, and spending time with someone whos struggling with mental illness wont necessarily be a downer for everyone. Some people are more susceptible to depression than others, and your risk depends on a complex mix of factors ranging from life circumstances to genes.
That said, depression can be just as infectious as happiness. Understanding how depression spreads can help you protect yourself against the symptoms and ultimately help you help your loved one overcome depression.
When your partner is depressed
Depression can be especially daunting if it affects your life partner or spouse since you spend so much time together and are so emotionally invested in their well-being.
Anne Sheffield, author of Depression Fallout: The Impact of Depression on Couples and What You Can Do to Preserve the Bond, says the stereotype of the depressed person”a sad person sitting quietly in a corner”is often far from the truth.
In fact, she says, depressed people “are often hyper-critical and belittling, demanding, quarrelsome and contrary, fault-finding, changeable, illogical, unreasonable, resentful, sometimes inexplicably angry, aloof, and unaffectionate.” Because these behaviors often go undiagnosed as depressive symptoms for long periods of time, they can cause lasting damage to previously solid relationships, says Sheffield, who has long struggled with depression herself.
Communicationor lack thereofoften helps fuel the spread of depression. If the depressed partner withdraws emotionally or ceases to be affectionate, it can be even more damaging than angry outbursts, and can trigger hostility, irritability, frustration, rejection, and sadness in the non-depressed partner, says Jack.
“Relationships are based on engagement and on sharingboth mutual pleasure as well as problems,” Jack says. “But when the depressed person sees primarily the negative side of things and also withdraws...the partner can feel isolated, even abandoned, and [can] also begin to ‘catch the feelings of despair.”
Even when couples do communicate, the quality of their interaction often suffers if depression is part of the mix. Studies have shown that when couples in which one person is depressed talk, they tend to be more verbally aggressive and less open and positive than non-depressed couples. They even smile and make eye contact less often.
Sheffield says a person whose spouse or partner is depressed typically goes through five overlapping stages of “depression fallout”:
• Confusion and bewilderment. You dont understand how someone you thought you knew could have changed so much (and for the worse).
• Self-blame. You assume youre responsible for the changeand the resulting relationship problems.
• Demoralization. A “mirror image of depression itself,” Sheffield says.
• Resentment and anger. Fed up with how youre being treated, you respond in a way that resembles your partners anger.
• Desire for escape. You just cant take it anymore and consider leaving the relationship.
The effect that depression has on a couple is often a chicken-and-egg problem, however. Although a depressed partner can affect the quality of a relationship, putting the other partner at risk for depression, relationship problems stemming from non-health factors (such as money trouble or infidelity) are also major triggers for depression.
“Depression in a partner is associated with an increase in negative interactions, and marital strife can lead to depression,” Jack says. “So the non-depressed person in a relationship can easily fall into depression over time, since the quality of the relationship is so strongly affected.”
Children may suffer too
If a couple has children, one parents depression can trickle down and affect them as well.
The children of depressed parents tend to blame themselves for the changes in their parents behavior, experience more family conflict due to the depressed parents increased irritability, and experience chronic stress in response to their parents depressive symptoms, says Michael Yapko, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Fallbrook, Calif., and the author of Depression Is Contagious.
In addition, depressed parents “can rarely fulfill their role of providing love, emotional support, [and] delight in a childs accomplishments, [and this] can affect the childs sense of value and worth,” Jack says.
Although its less common, parents can also contract a case of the blues from a depressed child. Parents may blame their shortcomings for the childs depression, which can cause them to experience the symptoms of depression themselves, says Igor Galynker, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City.
“Caring parents spend so much energy and invest so much of themselves into raising their children, they are likely to take both the blame and the credit for whatever happens to them,” Dr. Galynker says.
How to prevent the spread of depression
If you have a partner or family member whos depressed, the first order of business is making sure he or she gets the appropriate treatment. This usually means seeing a mental health professional and considering antidepressant medication, therapy, or both.
However, people who are depressed may resist treatment or deny they have a problem, so Sheffield recommends using a light touch.
“Saying, ‘Youre very depressed. Why dont you see a doctor? is definitely not the way to go,” she says. “Instead, say something like, ‘Youre usually so energetic and enthusiastic about things, but lately you seem sort of tired and run down.” Recommending a visit with the family doctor rather than a psychiatrist or other specialist may prevent the depressed persons guard from going up prematurely, Sheffield says.
Likewise, if you or your partner is depressed and you have a child, professional help from a mental health specialist for both you and the child is vital, Jack says. (This may include family counseling.) Although a psychologist or child psychologist is preferable in most cases, consulting a family physician is better than nothing, especially if thats all your insurance plan covers, says Nancy Irwin, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and the author of You-Turn: Changing Direction in Midlife.
You should seek out treatment from a counselor or therapist yourself if you need help dealing with your partners symptoms, but developing coping strategies and a strong support system are also essential.
Support groups, whether online or in-person, are great resources for the friends and family members of depressed people. Advocacy organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance run support groups through their local affiliates, while Families for Depression Awareness hosts an online support group at FamilyAware.org. Support groups for the families of depressed children can be "immensely helpful" for parents, Dr. Galynker says.
Although parents should provide emotional support to their depressed children, parents who react to a childs depression by being overprotective and smothering can actually do more harm than good. “Overprotective parents can unintentionally insulate the child from normal life challenges,” Yapko says. “Instead of the child developing good coping and problem-solving skills that come from facing normal stressors, his or her parents protect him...and the key skills for managing life are not well developed. The poorer the child is at handling life challenges, the harder it can be for a depressed child to get through the day and recover.”
Regardless of whether its your partner or child whos depressed, you shouldnt neglect to set aside some time for yourself. Continue to pursue your own interests and try to socialize as much as possible to keep your own spirits up, encouraging your partner or child to join you as much as possible, Jack says. Or, if you feel you just need to get away, get out of the house and do something to revitalize yourself.
“See your friends, go places that you enjoy going, and dont build your life around catering to the persons depression,” says Yapko. “Make sure you are compassionate, patient, available to talk, but also make sure youre not the hardest working person in the room.”