Soften Saturday: When Someone You Love is Depressed

When Someone You Love is Depressed

This week’s post is raw and from my heart. I’m not an expert in this area. I’m just a girl who loves a fella who battles depression.  It’s with his help and blessing that I write this. I’m also grateful for our friends who also struggle to kick depression to the curb or love someone who does. Their input was beneficial in writing this.

Earlier this month, Robin Williams’ passing rattled so many of us to the core.  The man who brought so much joy into our lives gone, depression claiming him far too soon.  Like many of you, I heard/read the news via social media.  My fella was at work, bringing his own variety of joy into people’s lives, making them smile.  I sent him a text message that said, “Robin Williams died.”  He didn’t immediately phone me after work, which I took to mean he was processing this news.  It’s a slippery slope, telling someone you love who battles depression that one of their idols has lost his fight with this ugly disease.


When my fella came home, he was sad. As we sat down for dinner, he quietly said, “He shared so much of his joy that he didn’t have any left for himself when he needed it most.”  I know this isn’t how depression works, that we are not born with a finite quantity of joy within our bodies.  But far too often I see this in my circle of friends, some entertainers, artists and others who could be.  Their days are spent causing others to laugh until it hurts, to smile, only to be filled with despair when not in the spotlight.


In all of our conversations about Robin Williams and about depression in the last few weeks, I realized I needed to use my voice here. (Thanks to those of you in my support circle who encouraged me.) I need to speak out and share my experience about loving someone who is depressed.  How to take care of you, how to best love and support them, how to battle depression without getting sucked into the vortex yourself.  With the help of my fella and friends intimately acquainted with depression,  I’ve put together this post for folks like me who love someone living with depression. It would be great if one little tidbit from this post helped someone just a tiny bit.  Together, my fella and I decided it was worth making ourselves raw and open in hopes that might happen.

STIGMA Here’s the rub about depression:  lots of folks will say stupid things like, “Buck up!  Snap out of it!  Hey, it’s a sunny day. What’s your problem, you grump?”  Depression isn’t just being in a minor funk and it’s not a choice.  We all have to realize depression is  the real deal,  just as legit as having a high cholesterol, diabetes, any of a long list of chronic illnesses.  And just like other chronic illnesses, it can be either easily and quickly remedied or it can give you a run for your money for years.  It can be minor or so hugely major, every corner and alley of your life will feel it. Would you ever hesitate to say to a dear friend, “I really need support right now, my husband was diagnosed with diabetes.”?  Probably not, yet few of us are comfortable saying, “The love of my life is battling depression and I just don’t know what to do.”  We have to stop this.  If you reach out, asking a friend or family member for support when someone you love is depressed and they are less than supportive, MOVE ON.  Keep asking until you find someone who will be supportive.  I’m not playing here.  This is not the time to try to change someone’s mind about whether or not depression is a “real thing.”  We have to stop whispering about depression.  There is no shame in it.  None.  You are going to need support and time with someone who isn’t depressed and is understanding.
UNDERSTANDING  When someone you love is depressed, it’s essential that you learn everything you can about depression.  Read up on it, talk to friends who have been there.  (And someone you know has been there, perhaps about 25% of them.  Just ask.) Gain an understanding on how hard it is to be depressed.  To know that maybe things like exercise will help, yet the depressed brain is busy creating fatigue and achiness, making exercise seem like the least appealing and possible thing ever.  To know that spending time doing an enjoyable activity might help with depression, yet also recognize that depression makes very few things seem enjoyable.  One friend who has been there calls depression the “upside down disease.”  It’s true, the activities that might be most beneficial in combating depression are also made difficult by the very nature of the disease.  Another friend eloquently said, “When the imbalance takes over, nothing is rational.” This is just a tiny glimpse into depression, just a couple examples.  When someone you love is depressed, make it your business to learn about the illness.
TREATMENT Whoa, Nelly, this is a tough one.  So here’s the deal: there is no one-size-fits-all fix for depression.  Yes, I know, you’ve seen a commercial on TV for a miracle pill that fixes depression.  Well, it might for someone…but that someone might not be your loved one.  So what happens when they go to the doctor, get the prescription and it doesn’t help?  Maybe the doctor will prescribe more medication or another medication or start trying to find the perfect cocktail of multiple medications. And maybe, just maybe, that will be the fix, either temporary or long-term.

Or maybe that doctor is zoned out, asks the same five questions from a form at every visit.  Wants your loved one who is paralyzed by depression to tell them on a scale from 1-10 how bad this sucks and how well the medication is working.  Never stops to ask just how friggin’ hard it is just to get out of bed to get to the appointment.  Maybe the doctor has your loved one on so many medications that you don’t recognize them anymore but you don’t know if it’s the medicine or the disease.  Maybe the doctor tells you, loved one, advocate and supporter, that it’s best if family members don’t come to appointments since you ask too many questions.  Maybe the doctor says your loved one is medication-resistant and can’t be helped.  Maybe your loved one struggles to get words out to describe to the doctor how very sad they are…but the doctor cuts them short because they have another appointment waiting.

Please, please, don’t settle for any of this.  It’s my belief that in part because of the stigma attached to mental health, there are some pretty crappy practitioners.  They get away with things other medical doctors would lose their licenses for.  If your loved one isn’t getting better, find another doctor.  If your loved one seems to be slipping further and further away, find another doctor.  If the doctor keeps piling on medication upon medication and your loved one becomes a person you don’t recognize. Find.Another.Doctor.  I don’t want to be super shouty about this, but it’s unlikely the first doctor is going to be the one that finds the perfect remedy.  Don’t be afraid to move on to another doctor who will help with necessary medication changes, recommend other courses of therapy, help your loved one feel better.  Need help finding a doctor?  See above.  Banish the stigma, ask your friends because at least one of them has been there.  They may have a recommendation.  Your family doctor, your gynecologist, your yoga teacher, just ask.  Someone knows someone who can help and you have to keep asking until you find the best fit for your loved one.

I know all of this asking and advocating and learning about depression is tiring, I really do. I also know it can be the difference between life and death.

TAKING CARE OF YOU By you, I mean YOU, the person who loves someone who is depressed.  You are not to blame for your loved one’s depression and you cannot single-handedly fix it. It’s easy to lose track of yourself.  Don’t let this happen.  Step away, go get a pedicure, take a walk in the neighborhood park.  Hang out with someone who is not depressed for an afternoon.  By all means, ask your friends for support, but also spend time doing something enjoyable where depression isn’t the only focus.  It’s easy to feel frustrated when supporting someone battling depression.  This requires effort on your part to take care of your needs, too.

A few other tidbits that were helpful to me:  recognizing that depression did not define my fella. He was not depression, depression was an illness he was battling.  Recognizing that sometimes he would use depression as an excuse  and I would have to hold him accountable, be encouraging of doing things that would be helpful but didn’t seem possible or even remotely appealing.  At the same time, I had to let him find his own path as best as I could while not letting him slip away entirely.  This is a delicate balance and is different for everyone.  I’ve seen folks online blame Robin Williams’ wife for not doing enough to keep him from slipping away…and I’ve seen others who get sucked into their loved one’s depression and lose themselves.  The balance is delicate and the key is reaching out for help.

RESOURCES  As I mentioned above, there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy for depression.  I’m sharing a few resources that were helpful to me and my fella.  And please, if there is something you have found helpful, share it in the comments.  Your voice is important to help others!

The Depression CureThe Depression Cure by Dr. Ilardi.  This book was the first step toward beneficial help for my fella.  The big step was joining Dr. Ilardi’s TLC Lab research group at the University of Kansas. If you are in the Kansas City area, you may find a group using this protocol with the guidance of therapists.  (There is also a list of practitioners in other areas of the country and world.) And here is a TedTalk from Dr. Ilardi. I encourage you to watch it!

Dr AmenChange Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr. Amen.  Dr. Amen has a terrific science-guided approach.  Reading his books also gave me insight into how the brain works, why depression is a “real thing” and not just having a bad day.

One additional resource: If you or your loved one feel suicidal, reach out for help.  Know that depression pushes us to make irrational decisions.  There is help, your pain can be eased without taking your life. You are valuable!   The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers online chats with folks who truly care about you, anytime day or night.  Or you can phone them at 800.273.8255.

Thanks for reading along…and now I turn the floor over to you, dear readers.  Please share in the comments below what has helped you, your loved ones, your friends in the battle with depression. 



  1. says

    Thanks for this post, Johnna. Every time someone talks honestly about depression, an angel gets her wings (just kidding) But the more transparency there is, the better treatment and support, and that’s so critical. Your fella is lucky to have you.

    • says

      Thanks, Cheryl! I so agree, transparency is key to banishing the stigma and helping folks find treatment and support. (And I’m pretty darned lucky to have my fella. 😉 )

  2. says

    Such a great post, an important post, Johnna. Thank you. I think the hardest thing about dealing with someone who is depressed is respecting their boundaries and knowing when to overstep them. You often have someone who tells you that s/he is “fine” and that person seems to be doing “okay” on the surface–maybe removed, maybe quiet, etc.–and then tragedy can strike when that person reaches their darkest place and takes their own life. And friends and family grieve, often comparing notes, saying they knew the person was struggling, but they didn’t know how much. It happens again and again.

    I suffered bouts of mild depression before I went gluten free (as you know depression can be related to gluten in some cases). Even those times were enough to let me know that “chin up” or “snap out of it” doesn’t work and makes the person feel far worse, of course, as if it’s all in his/her control. If only.

    And I find that people’s feelings on depression/suicide/other mental illness/addiction, etc. often hinge on whether they like the person. People are quick to write off someone who lost their lives to those issues if they didn’t care for them. Sad, but true. I’m talking mostly about celebrities here. They chalk it all up to bad personal decisions/poor lifestyle choices. Robin was so well loved that his death is fostering new discussions and more openness among so many and that is yet another gift he has given us.

    Again, an important topic and such a tough one. Thanks to you both for being willing to share this way. Wishing you both the very best in this all too common struggle.


    • says

      Thanks for your comment Shirley–so much great information here! I am so glad you mentioned the gluten connection, as I’ve seen first hand so much benefit in making dietary changes to alleviate depression (gluten as well as other things).

  3. says

    Thank you for this well informed piece on depression. May it open the eyes of those who have loved ones dealing with this terrible disease. God bless –

  4. Carolyn says

    Hi Johnna! I am a friend of Judy & Greg’s. My husband has suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout his life, has been hospitalized twice and has gone through ECT treatments. Your description is spot on when is comes to living with your loved one who suffers from this awful disease. Thank you for sharing your story. We need to be open about this to educate others who don’t understand the disease. I have had a good friend and a high school friend who both took their own lives. It is so hard to see how it affects family and friends.

    The best analogy I heard in explaining depression was this – Your body has organs and organs can malfunction such as a liver or kidney. The brain is an organ and it too can malfunction only it’s harder to figure out the treatment as brain chemistry changes all the time. It’s a constant battle.

    I would love to hear more about a gluten-free diet and how it can help with depression. Thanks again for getting your message out!

    • says

      Hi Carolyn! Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experience. I really like what you have said about organs malfunctioning. Only when more people realize this is a disease like many others will the stigma be removed.

      This is just my layman’s guess on gluten and depression (I haven’t seen any in-depth research studies by professionals on this yet)…I am going to guess it is related to inflammation in the brain. After reading The Depression Cure by Dr. Ilardi and some of Dr. Amen’s work and seeing the connection between sugar and inflammation, I think there may be a connection with gluten and inflammation. In our home, the experience is that there is simply less grumpiness (not specifically related to clinical depression) all around with less gluten, but I’ve got no proper research to back that up. I hope we will start seeing more research in this area, as many people who are diagnosed with Celiac disease or non-Celiac gluten sensitivity struggle with depression and find it alleviated after removing gluten from their diet.

      Thanks again for dropping by, Carolyn!

    • says

      Hi Carolyn,

      Celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are conditions that primarily affect gut, brain, and skin. Note: While celiac is an autoimmune disease and NCGS is *currently* not thought to be autoimmune, the symptoms and related conditions experienced by those with either celiac or NCGS can be the same or similar. I’m pointing that out in case anyone reading has tested negative for celiac disease so they think that their symptoms can’t be related to gluten. Not true.

      Most experts think that psychological symptoms related to celiac/NCGS are caused by the fact that the person is suffering from malabsorption of vitamins and minerals. The small intestine is damaged and can’t absorb vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients properly. B vitamins, zinc, and D are just some of the vitamins/minerals that contribute to good mental health, so if one is deficient in those due to celiac/NCGS, depression, anxiety, etc. can result. Most of our serotonin is produced in the gut. A good number of those with depression also have gut issues, which is another indicator of gluten issues–usually the only one that most doctors take seriously, but not all those with depression have obvious gut symptoms and even when they do, most doctors don’t tie the two together. Also, sometimes depression comes from the fact that the person has one health issue after another due to undiagnosed celiac/NCGS and dealing with that, as well as all the related health symptoms affecting the body is very depressing, but most of the time when we talk about depression, that’s not what we’re talking about.

      Here are some links (in no particular order) that you might find helpful. (Note that there might be overlap between some of them.) (I’ve seen depression listed as the #1 most common symptom on some experts’ symptom list)–201402/search–depression/vobid–12918/–depression/

      Hope this info is helpful. I recommend that you do further research/reading on your own and that your husband be tested for celiac and that his vitamin/mineral levels be checked as well. He might not test positive for celiac disease (the testing is still not highly accurate), but the vitamin/mineral level testing might indicate issues with absorption that could well point to gluten. You might have to demand testing (sadly not that unusual for those who have symptoms), but it will be worth it. Just know that testing negative on traditional celiac testing does not rule out gluten as a possible culprit.


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