When we heard the awful news that we'd lost actor Robin Williams to suicide, we were stunned -- and deeply saddened. How could a man who projected so much joy and mirth be so wracked by the devastating mental illness of depression?
The disease is tricky that way. And when it wins, it leaves behind spouses and children who desperately wish they could have rescued the victim.
Men have a particularly hard time dealing with depression because of the perceived stigma in admitting they're suffering from a condition that may be stronger than they are. Many self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. For the women who love these men, there are no easy answers.
So what do you do if your husband is dangerously depressed but can't -- or won't -- get the help he needs?
More from The Stir: Robin Williams' Life Honored: 20 Amazing Tributes
"Men do tend to exhibit depression differently in the sense that they will be quieter and more irritable and will show their emotions less readily," says Dr. Daniel Carlat, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Tufts University.
Men tend to hide their depression and are often in denial, according to Carlat. When women suffer from the illness, we're more likely to show it -- by crying a lot, for example, or by verbalizing our feelings.
"Men tend to externalize their feelings," says Dr. Cirecie A. West-Olatunji, former president of the American Counseling Association (ACA), particularly when they're suffering from depression. This means they act out when they're feeling pain on the inside by doing things like drinking too much, driving recklessly, and yelling.
This is why it's so important for a wife to keep the lines of communication open with a husband who may be depressed.
"Because if a man wants to hide serious depression, he can certainly do that," says Dr. Carlat.
"Look for any sudden changes of behavior," advises Dr. West-Olatunji. "We all have what we call 'mental health' days when we feel low and check out. You know it's depression, though, when you fail to bounce back after one of these days, and you continue to check out day after day."
Some of the signs of severe depression you may see in your spouse include:
- Changes in sleep habits, whether that's oversleeping or insomnia.
- Changes in eating, whether that's undereating or overeating.
- Changes in sex drive, usually a decrease.
- Increased irritability and lack of patience.
- Suddenly going very quiet.
- Increased reckless behavior.
- Increased substance use, like drugs and alcohol.
- Lack of interest in former favorite pastimes and hobbies.
If any of these sound like your husband, fiance, or partner, here's what you can do:
1. Recognize it's an illness. "We don't put mental health on parity with physical health," West-Olatunji says. But we should.
"We need to change our perspective on mental health issues," she says, and take depression as seriously as we would, say, a cancer diagnosis. You wouldn't leave your husband's cancer untreated, would you? This is a brain disorder that needs treatment. Definitely don't tell your husband to just "get over it."
More from The Stir: 5 Tips for Parenting Through Depression
2. Act quickly. West-Olatunji points out that men are much more likely to commit suicide as a result of depression than women are. So if you see the signs, you need to listen carefully and get him help immediately.
3. Report your husband if he says he's feeling suicidal. Treat this as an emergency and get him the support he needs by calling his doctor or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
4. Get your husband to a doctor even if he doesn't mention suicide. Ideally, if you fear your husband is dealing with depression, you would help him see a psychiatrist or therapist. But what if he's willing to admit he's depressed but doesn't want to see a psychiatrist? Dr. Carlat recommends seeing a family doctor.
"Most primary care physicians are good at picking up on signs of depression, and they can prescribe medication," he says.
5. Be hopeful. Keep communicating the message to your husband that "we can change this," says West-Olatunji. He needs to hear that support and encouragement from you, whether he knows it fully or not.
Please call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case you are worried about your partner, yourself, or someone else.
Images via © iStock/CandyBoxImages, Jason Merritt/Getty Images