There was a time, earlier this year, when my girlfriend and I were lying in bed talking about her depression. She was in the middle of her second bout, six years after the first. She was describing how she felt and mentioned she had been having "suicidal thoughts". Trying to untie the sudden knot in my stomach and remain calm, I asked her what this involved. She said, "Knives. Mainly fantasies about knives."
My initial thoughts were as follows:
"It's good she can be this honest with me, that's an improvement."
Hide all the knives in the house
"What am I supposed to do with this information? Why has she given me this information?"
Hide the knives right now
"What can I do to help solve this problem?"
Yeah but the knives, though...
"Why would she want to kill herself? Doesn't she love me enough? Why am I not enough to make her happy?"
My ego took a serious right hook. I felt completely useless. I spent the rest of the night wide awake worrying about knives, love, depression and my role in the whole sorry mess. The following morning I texted my sister, Katie: "Charlotte's hitting depression again. I don't know what to do. I feel totally inept."
Katie, whose husband also suffers from depression, texted back immediately: "Oh bro, I know exactly how you feel. Call me whenever you want."
That was enough to release some of the pressure building in my head. I hadn't told anyone what was happening. I had a tennis ball of tension being volleyed repeatedly against the walls of my brain.
Depression is nobody's fault. It is an illness that, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in five of us will experience in our lifetime. It affects people in myriad ways and there is no stock image or set of symptoms that fit everyone. Depression doesn't just affect the person with the illness, though. By its very nature it also affects the lives of those close to them – friends, family and lovers in particular.
We aren't suffering in the same way as the person who is depressed, that much is a given. But, in trying to support someone we love as they try to get better, we can still be profoundly affected. As the person trying to offer support, you can be wracked with guilt, desperation and fear. We can feel like we are walking on eggshells all the time and it's important that we make sure we are okay, too.
The first thing I felt when Charlotte was depressed was a deflation of my own ego. My friend Rachel, whose boyfriend and best friend have both suffered depression, agrees. "It hurts to think that you are no longer capable of making them happy," she told me.
Deep down we all know we aren't the sole source of our partner's happiness, but Rachel had to realise she wasn't personally the answer. "You can't 'save' the person with depression – you just have to be there for them," she says. "Most of the time we receive thanks for helping people. With depression, though, you have to mentally prepare yourself that those thanks will be delayed."
We aren't suffering in the same way as the person who is depressed, that much is a given. But, in trying to support someone we love as they try to get better, we can still be profoundly affected.
Emer O'Neill, the CEO of Depression Alliance, told me that the best thing to do was help your partner get a referral to a doctor or professional. "Fundamentally," she says, "there is not a lot you can do on your own." She recommended "increasing your own understanding of what depression is so you don't say harsh things or something that is inappropriate." By understanding more, you "feel more equipped to deal with it."
Getting a grasp on the heavy ennui that depression can cast over a person is imperative. If you are frustrated trying to gee them up, they are feeling probably that frustration in otherworldly proportions. It's hard, but, according to O'Neill, in growing exasperated, you can get situations that aren't helpful. "A partner will say, 'Oh come on, I've done all the right things – I've taken you outside, I've cooked you some meals, I've talked to you about yourself, and I'm still not getting it,' and relationships can break down over that." You should equip yourself with "as much knowledge around the illness and recovery as possible," she says, so you are protecting yourself as much as understanding the person you love.
You have to learn to put your ego aside, basically. It's hard, and you often can't, but it helps to try. One of the ways you can help to do that is by talking to other people. Your ego won't feel so bad if you know other people are going through similar things. Since chatting about Charlotte's depression to friends of mine, I discovered many of them have experience the same thing – supporting someone with depression – we just never got round to talking about it.
It is natural to want to help your loved one, even if you can't solve things on your own. Personally, I try to remain realistic about my influence but, at the same time, if there are small things I can do that make me feel better, I want to do them. Emily Reynolds, who wrote this excellent piece on the little things you can do to help someone who is depressed, explained that the key is "a mixture between a personal expression of care and love and understanding and being useful. Sometimes there's a really practical, 'Let's just make you a cup of tea then,' approach to mental illness that, in its well-meaning attempt to be practical, fails to convey the tenderness and concern that it's obviously rooted in."
There are obviously cases where small gestures are simply not enough. After hearing me talk about the knives conversation, O'Neill said, "When someone talks to you about suicide, then you have a duty, a responsibility, to act on it. That's too much for you to have to hold in, it's more than anyone should have to hold in. We talk about depression being classed as mild, moderate and severe, and that's a really misleading medical definition."
"Because people can be suicidal with mild depression. In all my years of training, whether I know someone intimately or not, as soon as they express suicidal thoughts, you have to phone someone, a charity service or a GP and say, 'Look, I have to pass this on.'"
It may feel like a breach of trust or confidentiality, seeking outside help for someone, but believe me, your mind can run to wild places unless you talk to a volunteer, professional or friend. Charlotte didn't act on her thoughts, but I'm not sure I would want to take that risk again. This is partly because keeping her suicidal thoughts to myself was exhausting, but also because if something did happen, it would be hard not to shoulder some of the blame myself, no matter how misplaced.
One of the hardest things I felt with Charlotte was trying to convince her that something was wrong in the first place. Again, this was heavily reliant on me knowing what the signs might be – sleeping too much or too little, a change in eating habits, hypersensitivity or unexplained physical pains that run beyond two weeks, for example. O'Neill reiterates how key having information to hand is. "You can find help and advice through the Friends in Need network, you can talk to a GP about it, you can read books and articles," she says. "Get some online information to show your partner and say, 'Look, these are some of the symptoms, do you think you might be going through something similar?' But be as gentle as you can when you pass it on."
"When someone talks to you about suicide, then you have a duty, a responsibility, to act on it. That's too much for you to have to hold in, it's more than anyone should have to hold in" – Emer O'Neill, Depression Alliance
My aunt Eleanor's husband and daughter have both suffered depression. In her daughter Rebecca's case, it was postnatal. The temptation to be the solution, as a mother, is strong. But having experienced depression through her husband, Eleanor decided the best way to cope was to offer practical help. However, Eleanor says, "It was difficult to ask what help Rebecca wanted. Most of the time she didn't know. I was wary of bossing her around – she was a 30-year-old adult. Some days we just took over and didn't worry too much, but this was mostly because two small children were involved." She told me that it did get her down, she did feel sad, but she didn't try to counsel Rebecca – further emphasising the idea that we cannot try to solve things alone. Because if we try to, we might end up taking on too much. If we become susceptible to breaking down ourselves, that helps no one.
Depression passes. It always does. Even if it looks like it will never end, eventually it will and you'll be on the other side with that person, relieved and feeling better. It's at this point, when you come to rebuilding – rather ironically – that's often the best time to understand the role of different treatments that could be sought next time around. "Even though you've got through it and you want to move on, it's good to go back to your GP and talk about other options you could have had, says O'Neill. There is a thing called a Wellness Recovery Action Plan, which can help guide you along the way, too.
Another friend of mine, Natalie, whose fiancé Darran suffered a major breakdown a few years back, talked to me about how things move on. As a couple they have worked really hard together to keep Darran healthy. "It's funny," she said, "I remember going through hell at the time, but it was so long ago it almost feels like it was someone else."
Whatever your situation, as the supporter of someone who is ill, remember you're not alone – even when it feels like it. The only "right" way to try to help someone with depression is to educate yourself about what they might be feeling or thinking. With knowledge, you have some power.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here.
More mental health coverage on VICE: