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Husband or Wife Depressed? You May Not Feel So Good, Either

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WebMD Health News

July 27, 2000 -- Depression is not contagious, but if your husband or wife is depressed, it's typical for you to have feelings of alienation, abandonment, and guilt, a new study finds. The answer, experts say, is to seek therapy yourself and try to improve the quality of your life.

Researcher Nili R. Benazon, PhD, says spouses may need to learn how to distance themselves to some degree from their partners' symptoms, and to go out to social events, even if they have to leave their depressed spouse at home. "To some degree, they have to learn to live their own life," says Benazon, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. "Otherwise, they both end up unhappy."

The first thing a spouse should do is make sure the depressed partner is properly diagnosed, says Sandra Hoffman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Atlanta. Second, he or she should learn as much about the symptoms as possible. "The spouse should also receive his or her own counseling, either individually or jointly with the spouse," says Hoffman, who was not involved in the study.

Benazon, along with James C. Coyne, PhD, from the University of Pennsylvania, studied 79 couples they found through two mood disorder clinics. More than 90% of the couples were married; 30 of them included a clinically depressed husband, and the rest included a clinically depressed wife. Only 6% of the depressed members of the group suffered from severe depression. "Still, we're not talking about people suffering from the blues, but real, diagnosed depression," says Benazon, whose study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

The researchers found a high level of distress among people who live with a depressed spouse because of the increased responsibility and burdens that come with living with someone with depression.

"Living with a depressed person is a challenge," says Benazon, "and some believe that hanging out with a depressed person will then make you somehow distressed. That's not exactly what happens." Rather, she says, when you live with a depressed person, you end up bearing more responsibility for raising children and dealing with household problems, and you may become socially isolated. "That's what accounts for the nondepressed spouse becoming distressed themselves -- not just the effects of the depression of one person wearing off on the other person," Benazon says.

The couples were asked to evaluate how strongly they were experiencing 33 different negative feelings, labeled as "burdens." The sources of burden receiving the highest scores by spouses were:

  • concern over the patient's feeling of worthlessness,
  • fear that their partners would develop serious depression again in the future,
  • their own emotional strain,
  • anxiety about the patient's constant worrying, and
  • worry over the patient's lack of energy.

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