This will probably come as a surprise to many but my wife, that happy, life of the party, center of attention type of gal has suffered with severe debilitating depression and anxiety for over 10 years. We've shared this secret with some and with others we've just turned the wattage up on the fake "cover" smile.
Two weeks ago she started ECT (electro convulsive therapy). You can read more about it here, but in a nutshell 3 times a week she gets put under general anesthesia and her brain is shocked into having epileptic type seizures. She wakes approx 30 minutes later in varying degrees of muscle ache, jaw pain, headaches and tiredness.
So why go through this now after 10 years of therapy and meds? She no longer wanted to live, just couldn't face another day of the same old battle. She had/has suicidal idealizations and has gone so far as to plan her exit with precision and care and knew exactly where and how. She was just waiting on the right when.
Luckily throughout, she was almost always medicated and in some sort of counseling/talk therapy etc. It's only when she realized she might not see our children grow up that she became more truthful. We let our family in, and was honest about her wanting to die.
We honestly never expected what came next.
A flurry of airline tickets, text messages, and a rally of help that floored us! We had our very own million man march made up of family, in laws, neighbors, distant relatives and friends all willing to do anything to help.
She's now about midway through ECT and will then receive "maintenance" ECT periodically (whatever that means!). She no longer wants to die today and probably not tomorrow either but now has better tools.
I spent some time taking to a friend a few nights ago and the one thing he kept asking me was “what can we do for you guys?” I realized I get this question a lot and typically answer with some BS line like “your support and understanding means a lot,” but in reality there are things you can do to help your friends who are suffering with depression. So, inspired by this question, I present the following tips for how to help a family dealing with mental health issues.
Food is always welcome. When times are at its toughest or we’re wiped out from therapy the last thing we have on our mind is cooking a healthy meal for the family. This usually means we order takeout or pop some chicken nuggets into the microwave. Not the ideal meals.
Bring over a dish or two. You can bring them hot and RTE (ready-to-eat) or have them prepared and ready to pop into a crock pot or the oven. Meals that are already portioned and keep well in the freezer are awesome as well. You have no idea just how helpful and meaningful this is to the family, especially when in need.
Help clean the house/room/car/lawn. It’s so easy to neglect chores when going through any health ordeal and this is especially true for depression when it's hard to get out of bed. One of the most amazing things my mother-in-law did when she came to help out for a while was to deep clean everything. This had a huge effect because it broke the cycle of being too depressed /tired/overmedicated to clean which further aggravated the situation. Don't think you have to come and do the whole house either, the small things can make a huge difference. Do the dishes/laundry/gardening, any little thing helps. Lastly, if you’re like me and not that capable in this department, hire someone to come in for the day. It’s much more affordable than many think.
Help with the kids. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of shielding our kids from what’s going on but we couldn't have done so without the help of our amazing friends and family. Picking the kids up from school, having them over for a playdate, hosting a sleepover can all help in times of need. It helps to keep the kids happy and engaged when their parents are having a tough time.
Be a friend. I know that’s very generic, but it encompasses so much. If you haven't heard from us in a couple days, check in. Offer to take us out to lunch, shopping, to the beach or any other activity we might enjoy. Come over for a cup of coffee and just chat. Really anything to show you care, promote activity, and stimulate conversation. It’s easy and will go a long way. This is especially important when their partner has to work or is away leaving them alone at home. These alone times can often be tough so stop in when you can. But don't push for information or try to give advice. They aren't doing great which is why you are there so why ask? Keep the conversation light and generic. A person will open up to you when they need it. But sometimes they just don't want to remember the pain.
Dont forget the spouse/partner. This could have gone into the “be a friend” category but I believe it’s important enough to have its own. It’s easy to forget that the partner of the sick person often suffers greatly as well. The percentage of effort shifts heavily to their side as they now have the burden of worrying about their loved one while simultaneously taking care of the family, home, finances, food, and their job. Engage them, see how they're doing and if there’s anything they need. It’s an incredibly stressful time for them so offer to take the kids so they can have a night out or provide them the opportunity to enjoy an activity specific to them. Also, talk to them. The partner is going to have the best perception of whats going on and how things are going and will likely be the best source for information on how you can help.
These are just a few suggestions on how you can help someone who is battling depression or any kind of mental illness. I’m sure there are many more, but this is what I’ve found most useful to our family. Please keep in mind that everyone’s experience is different but above all else, do something! Depression can be overwhelmingly crushing to a family and it’s easy to become isolated. Don't let this happen! Get involved to the best of your ability. Do what you can. It can be the difference to save a family and a life.
I recently attended the annual VFW National Convention in Pittsburgh PA, and in his address to the audience President Obama said that “it’s time to end the stigma and shame around mental health issues. Every American can help by learning the five signs that someone may be hurting so we can all reach out. We need to be there for them 100 percent. We’ve all got a role to play.”
He’s right. It’s time.
This is who we are. We’re not ashamed of it. We need help, and others do too.