Dear Dr. Wes and John: When you love someone with some "issues" like depression, how can you help them crack their shell? - 16-year-old girl
Dr. Wes: The first thing to remember above all else is to not let his depression become yours. In fact, depression can be rather infectious among dating partners. Not infrequently, kids who are depressed find each other and become a sort of mutual support system. That sounds great, and sometimes it is. However, two sad, dark, reclusive teens they may drag each other down rather than lift each other up. So you should ask yourself whether you're attracted to this guy because he seems so much like you. If he does, then you may be at some risk of making things worse for yourself and for him.
If, instead, you see yourself as very different from your boyfriend, ask yourself if you are attracted to him in a sort of client-therapist way. I especially worry about this when you comment about wanting to "crack his shell." Many young people really like dating someone who needs them, and depressed partners are very needy. That's very gratifying and romantic : until it's not. Teenagers aren't designed to be therapists, and dealing with a depressed boyfriend or girlfriend can overwhelm even an emotionally strong teen. Your reach on this may exceed your grasp, which leads us to what really may help.
If he's not seeing a therapist, you should probably suggest he do so. That's where any shell-cracking should take place. It also avoids you becoming his main connection to mental health. If he is already seeing someone, you might ask the boyfriend and/or his family if you can sit in on a session or two. If this is a fairly serious relationship, the therapist should be very interested in getting your perspective on things. She or he also may be able to troubleshoot situations with the boyfriend before he becomes worse, and even give you communication and relational tasks that support his recovery.
Relationships are very important for teenagers - depressed or not. I'm always thankful to involve family, school and community in a client's well-being.
Depending on how your boyfriend expresses his depression, you also can help by just listening, taking him out with you so he doesn't isolate himself or suggesting alternatives to self-destructive behavior. While accepting his views of school, family, friends, etc., you may also suggest less depressing ways of thinking. This may be a little annoying to him at times, but if you are careful not to sound like Little Miss Sunshine, he will realize that in many ways depression is not just about how the world is but how we think about it.
And finally, always, always, ALWAYS share serious concerns about suicide with his therapist or loved ones. I know that ratting out one's boyfriend is not socially acceptable and risks the relationship - but if you have a good reason to worry about self-harm you have no other ethical choice.
John: A lot of your response will depend on what type of depressed person your boyfriend is acting like. While some depressed people try and work out their problems with their peers, others act like psychological parasites that simply try to make others feel their pain. Which type of these he is should be revealed by your dialogue.
Listening to people who are upset is good advice, but as Dr. Wes said, it only works if your friend is trying to bring himself up. It sounds strange, but some people actually enjoy making themselves depressed and letting others know it. I've been there. One question to ask yourself is whether your friend tries to top your stories. If you express concerns about your classes and your friend goes into a tirade about why HIS are so difficult, it's a sign he's begging for attention. If your friend is constantly shifting the subject to his problems and trying to make your problems pale in comparison, it is unlikely listening will help.
On the other hand, if your boyfriend is genuinely interested in helping himself, an understanding ear could help him sort out his affairs. Instead of just listening to your boyfriend, try and engage in some interesting activities with him. While dating someone, it's easy to get into the dinner-and-a-DVD rut, but passive activities won't do much to help your boyfriend. Try playing some sports or even a board game together with friends, and you might be surprised at the results. This forces your boyfriend to do things rather than have things happen to him, which is the first step in overcoming depression. It's easier to take control of your life if you know you can control your chess pieces.
The other benefit is that it instills a healthy pleasure in his brain, which may have a ripple effect in changing his paradigm. Instead of passively "hanging out" together, tell your boyfriend it's time to have fun - whether he likes it or not.
Of course, there will be shells you can't crack. As a 16-year-old, you aren't entirely responsible for your own life, much less your boyfriend's. If his attitude becomes self-destructive, tell your boyfriend, "I care for you very much, but you need better help than I know how to give." And, as Dr. Wes says, find someone older and tell them.
Next week: New Year's resolutions for teens and parents.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.