No one likes being sick or hurt. Try to imagine what it would feel like to know that you would be sick or hurt forever; a person with a broken leg can often find solace in that he or she will only have to suffer from limited mobility and pain for a finite period of time, but other people are not as lucky.
While working in the field of psychology, I came into contact with a number of people who suffered from chronic illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, or the lasting effects from catastrophic medical events such as strokes. Often, people who have been diagnosed with a chronic illness or condition suffer from comorbid depression, which is a type of depression that is resultant from a primary physical or psychological ailment. However, comorbid depression must be taken as seriously as major depressive disorder, and there are some things caretakers can do to help treat the depression of a loved one.
I believe that there are two things every person needs, healthy or well. First, every person needs a support system beyond the practitioners who are paid to help them. There is no “right” support system. Some people rely heavily on familial support whereas others turn to friends and neighbors. I found that the most challenging type of person to work with was one who did not have a loved one in the world, as caretakers often need to provide companionship as well as care-taking. In a best-case scenario, loved ones can act as caretakers and provide continual support through genuine companionship.
The second thing every person needs is meaning. Often, limited mobility, embarrassing consequences of a speech impediment, or clumsiness due to a neurological disorder can make it difficult to go outside and face the world. I heartily believe that every person has the capacity to do something meaningful, whether they provide support on online message boards, push the candy cart at the hospital, volunteer at a bookstore, hold a part-time job, or focus on spending time with loved ones. The idea that a person can do something meaningful after suffering from a traumatic medical diagnosis can seem like a pipe-dream, but there are many ways to help change a person’s thought patterns from “I’m useless” to “I am a good and important person.”
There is no one-size-fits-all option for treating depression, though some of the most popular and widely accepted treatments include talk therapy and psychopharmalogical treatment (i.e. taking antidepressant medications). Often, working with a therapist in addition to taking prescription medication can yield the best results. Keep in mind that a good therapist will not want to see patients twice a week for the rest of their lives, and similarly, people often take popular antidepressants such as SSRIs or SNRIs for a finite period of time. A good analogy I like to use is how most people recover from a knee injury: they may need to use a crutch, see a physical therapist, and take anti-inflammatory medication for a period of time so that they can heal. People suffering from depression are no different—instead of viewing the need for therapy or medication as a failure, it’s best to consider it as a temporary treatment plan so the person can heal.
The most dangerous part of depression is that severe depression coupled with a notable medical condition can cause people to lose the will to live. When a person slips into a state of complete despair, their immune system can become less effective, leaving them susceptible to other serious conditions (e.g. a cold could more readily progress into pneumonia and have a greater chance of more complications). Try to always have something realistic to look forward to, like trips to an equine therapy center, a favorite homemade meal, visits from grandchildren, or trips to baseball games. Sometimes, spending quality time together can be the best motivator to live, improve, and thrive.
Comorbid depression is a serious condition that needs to be addressed. With increasing advances in medication and talk therapy, depression is far more treatable than it was a few decades ago. Ironically, caretakers might find that by helping treat a loved one’s depression, they can improve the quality of their own lives as well.
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