This Week's 'This Is Us' Had A Great Example Of How To Help A Partner With Depression

by Natalia Lusinski
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Spoilers for This Is Us ahead. Although sadness is an emotion everyone deals with sometimes, depression is another story. It’s like a magnified version of sadness, with symptoms such as less energy, a loss of interest in activities you once liked, and feeling worthless. While you may not suffer from it, you may have a partner with depression and will want to know how to best help them.

For instance, on Tuesday's episode of This Is Us, titled "Kamsahamnida", Kate tried to help Toby with his depression. A bit of backstory: He’d gone off his antidepressants while he and Kate tried for a baby. While it worked and she became pregnant, it also resulted in Toby being depressed; although he’d started taking his meds again, they hadn’t kicked in yet. He is worried she may leave him and he says she didn’t sign up for this — he feels like a burden to her. Throughout the episode while Toby is unmotivated to do anything except lie in bed or on the couch, listless, Kate tries to be supportive — sincerely asking Toby how he’s feeling, sending him loving texts to see how he’s doing, and asking if he’d like to take their dog, Audio, for a walk with her, to which he initially refuses to do.

“Having a partner who is depressed can be scary, heartbreaking, frustrating, and loving all at the same time,” Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. “Knowing how to support them is critical; sadly, it’s not all common sense approaches.” Luckily, although it may be challenging, there are things you can do to try to help your partner who’s suffering from depression or a depressive episode.

By the end of the This Is Us episode, Toby finally agrees to go on a walk with Kate and Audio. On the walk, Kate tells Toby she’s not going to leave him — that “she signed up for better or worse” and that if he falls again, she’ll be right there to pick him back up. (Cue the tears.) So should you follow Kate’s lead, so to speak, such as encouraging your depressed partner to go for a walk? If you don’t force them and understand that depression isn't something they can just snap out of — yes.

First, Understand What Depression Is — And Isn’t

As far as encouraging your partner to do things they once enjoyed — like taking the dog for a walk — you first need to try to understand what depression is and what it isn’t, Dr. Klapow says. “This is not just about feeling down or blue,” he says. “Your partner, if depressed, cannot just ‘cheer up,’ ‘think about happy things,’ or ‘look on the bright side.’” He says that their brain has changed temporarily and they process information differently — everything they see or hear is processed through a lens of negatively and hopelessness.

Dr. Klapow says to keep in mind that depression is not always about being sad. “Your partner may feel anxious, nervous, and fearful — their body, mind, and emotions become foreign to them and it can scare them,” he says. “Depression is very physiological — they may be exhausted, feel tired, feel like sleeping but too irritated to sleep, they may move slower, think slower, and talk slower.” He adds that their depression is not only frustrating for them, but can also be frustrating for you. “Attempts to cheer them up or cheer themselves up are not likely to be successful,” he says.

How You Can Help Your Partner When They’re Going Through A Depressive Episode

So, if your partner is going through a depressive episode, what should you do? Dr. Klapow says not to try to be their psychologist or psychiatrist. “The most important thing you can do for your partner is make sure they are being treated,” Dr. Klapow says. “Medications and psychotherapy are medically indicated and are not just something to consider.” He says to make sure they go to therapy and take their medications as directed.

“Meanwhile, you are there to listen, to support, and to let them know you love them, and to help structure their day so that it has ‘normal’ activities, like taking the dog for a walk,” he says. Cognitive distortions, irrational beliefs, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and crying spells will all be there, he says, and that is why they need to be in the care of a psychologist and/or psychiatrist, too. He adds that self-help strategies can help your partner, but in addition to professional treatment, not instead of it.

“Assuming they are being treated, keep your partner engaged in life, physically and cognitively,” Dr. Klapow says. “Going on a walk and getting them moving — daily — is important.” However, he says not to push them too hard or go too far. “But, also, not allowing them to lie in bed all day is critical,” he says.

Dr. Klapow says to help make sure they eat, sleep, and interact with people every day. “Disturbed sleep cycles from lying in bed all day, poor nutrition from not wanting to eat or from overeating, and total social isolation from feeling hopeless will make their symptoms worse,” he says. The solution? Encourage and support them. “Be firm — they need to get out of bed, they need to eat, and they need to interact,” he says. “Realize that they may not be able to do these things at a normal pace, but working to keep life as normal as possible is important.”

Kailee Place, licensed professional counselor (LPC) at her private practice, Shifting Tides Therapeutic Solutions in Charleston, SC, agrees. “No one enjoys feeling depressed, but due to depression itself, it takes a bit of time to work up the energy to do anything about it,” she tells Bustle. “Don’t do everything for your partner, even though that feels like the most compassionate route.” She says, ultimately, they need to experience the wins of each step for themselves.

“It’s motivating and energizing to do things on our own, so allow your partner to take those steps on their own and at their own pace,” Place says. Then, afterwards, you can celebrate the wins with them. “Celebrate what your partner does for themselves and even do these things alongside them — like go to a therapy appointment, cook a healthy meal together, pick out a movie to watch together, etc. — but don’t do it for them.”

Communication Is Key

Place also suggests continuing to be open and communicative with your partner. “I can nearly guarantee your partner fears you’ll leave them (and probably think they deserve for you to leave), so being open and communicative, even if it’s difficult, maintains the honesty, trust, and intimacy that was built when you two fell in love to begin with,” she says. “Be patient and lower your expectations.” She says this is not a bad thing. “Being present, living moment-to-moment, and expecting very little allows for each of your partner’s positive gains and little wins to be celebrated and experienced while understanding their down times and negativity is also temporary,” Place says. “This takes the pressure off of your partner to feel they must prove themselves, but also allows you to breathe and take things in stride.”

Make Sure Your Partner Stays Safe

Dr. Klapow also says to watch your partner and make sure they are safe. “Depression can result in feelings of suicide and suicide attempts,” he says. “If they look like they are getting worse, it’s OK to ask them if they are thinking that life is not worth living or even if they are thinking about taking their own life.” He says that if the answer is yes, don’t leave them alone. “Instead, call their treatment provider immediately,” Dr. Klapow says.

Take Care Of Yourself, Too

Place says that taking care of yourself is essential, too. “In my experience, when a relationship also has depression thrown in, communication and support becomes paramount,” she tells Bustle. “Partners easily burn out, get angry, become resentful, feel guilty, and so on and so on.” She says that it’s a complex dynamic: Your love for your partner is massive, but you’re still human and have feelings, often negative or distressing. So what should you do? As the caregiving partner, surround yourself with positive, supportive, uplifting people in your day-to-day life, Place says. “Seek out a therapist and whatever you need to give yourself a safe and supportive space.”

She adds that while depression is horrible for the person experiencing it, it can also suck the life out of their partner, too. “You, as the partner, need positivity and energy in your life to keep yourself afloat while you continue caring for your loved one while being OK yourself.”

As you can see, there are plenty of ways for you to help support your partner when they are going through a depressive episode. “You can’t snap them out of depression, but you can support them as they go through treatment,” Dr. Klapow says. “You can help them and the treatment program by keeping them engaged, moving, and interacting with life.” He adds that reassuring them that they are loved, that they have a future, and that you are there for them is also key. “Do this to support versus to convince them,” Dr. Klapow says. Although it may be challenging to help your partner through a depressive episode, remember that it can be manageable.

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.