“I’m struggling with feelings of helplessness about my girlfriend’s depression. We’ve been together for about two years now and I knew that she had episodes of depression before we met, but this is the first time I’ve really seen her in the throes of it. Nothing seems to be of any help. She gets cranky with my attempts to lift her up and, to top it off, she’s occasionally mentioned thoughts of taking her life. How can I best help her get better?”
Sometimes depression can seem contagious: Being very close to someone who appears hopeless is overwhelming and helping them out can feel insurmountable. You clearly have a lot of care for your girlfriend, but learning how to be supportive without wearing yourself out will be crucial.
A lot of partners want to problem solve and “fix” their lover’s depression. Most often, what depressed folks really need from friends and family is non-judgmental listening and reassurance. The two of you will have to learn, together, what role you can play that is most helpful to your girlfriend… and not too taxing for you. Keep in mind, your role here is that of loving and supportive partner, not parent or therapist. You can be your sweetie’s greatest cheerleader as she pursues true self-care: therapy, exercise, meds if needed, and so on. Anything more than these morsels is likely to hurt the relationship and create feelings of resentment in you.
It can feel scary to initiate discussions about suicide — as though putting it out in the open will only exacerbate the suicidal feelings. Being afraid to talk about your partner’s suicidal thoughts isn’t going to help either of you and leaves you both in the dark. Suicide is such a hot potato issue that no one really wants to hold onto it for too long. The reality is that suicidal thoughts are much more common than our society likes to acknowledge. Often these thoughts are not accompanied by any real intent or plan to take one’s life and are actually fantasies in times of deep hardship — along the lines of, “I don’t want to be here anymore so that I don’t have to deal with this crap.” Alternately, these thoughts can be part of a very real movement toward a suicide plan and, at worst, an attempt.
It’s important for you and your woman to distinguish whether her thoughts are of the passing variety or part of a bigger suicidal plan. But be careful with how much you take on: Her responsibility to you, so that you aren’t a worried mess, is to communicate where her thoughts fall on this spectrum. If you get wind that she is actively scheming to take her life, it’s vital that she inform a therapist immediately or that one of you reach out to a mental health crisis service so that she can get the urgent support she needs. She’s lucky to have a partner as invested as you but make sure you are getting the support you need too — your well-being is just as important as hers.