Even though 48 to 55 percent of people with PTSD also have depression, little is known about why the two disorders are so closely related and how they change over time.
If you’re married to a veteran with PTSD and depression, this is the last thing you want to hear. You want answers. You want to know how these co-occurring conditions are connected, what all this means for you as a veteran’s spouse, and what you can do to cope and support your partner.
The Relationship Between PTSD and Depression
The relationship between PTSD and depression is complex and little understood, but there are a few theories as to why they seem to go hand-in-hand.
- People with PTSD may be more prone to depression. According to Matthew Tull, PhD, they’re three to five times more likely to get depression than people who don’t have PTSD, and half of people with PTSD have major depressive disorder, a particular kind of depression.
- Depression is common after someone experiences trauma. People with depression are more likely to have experienced some kind of trauma, so the development of depression may have more to do with the traumatic experience than the presence of PTSD.
- PTSD symptoms may cause depression. The severity and life-altering impact of PTSD symptoms may pull people into a depression.
- Some symptoms of PTSD and depression overlap. Sleeping problems, anxiety, irritability, losing interest in life, feeling hopeless, feeling helpless and worthless, thinking about suicide, feeling numb, and issues concentrating are symptoms of both diseases, so it can be difficult to tell if you’re looking at PTSD, depression, or both.
- PTSD coupled with depression might be its own subtype of PTSD. The combination of PTSD and depression might be its own distinct disorder.
Another link between the conditions is genetics, which is believed to play a factor in both PTSD and depression.
Based on my experiences being married to a combat vet with PTSD, I can imagine all these theories having some merit. I can’t imagine someone not being depressed after enduring what my husband’s been through. I’ve seen a PTSD episode drive him into hopeless, lonely places, and I think PTSD and depression deserve to be studied and treated as a distinct disorder that disrupts the lives of thousands of veterans and their wives.
Now we know how PTSD and depression might be connected, but how do the theories look in real life?
What PTSD and Depression Look Like in Real Life
Compared to veterans with just PTSD, veterans with PTSD and depression in a 2015 study experienced more distress, difficulty with daily tasks, and neurocognitive problems, like problems with focusing and remembering. They were also more at risk for suicide and had more trouble in their social lives and at work. Furthermore, they didn’t respond as well to treatment and quit going more often than veterans with only PTSD.
When PTSD goes untreated, it can persist for weeks. months, or a lifetime. Depression can also come and go for a person’s entire life, and both conditions can get worse the longer they go unaddressed.
For veterans’ wives, watching someone we love deteriorate is distressing. We’re constantly worried about what might happen next. We worry about money and legal problems and how each crisis affects the kids. Much of the time, we aren’t even aware of how our veterans’ troubles have impacted us.
As our veterans’ PTSD and depression go unchecked through the years, walls are erected between people. Our spouses see our suffering and don’t want to hurt us anymore, so they stop telling us how they feel, thinking that’s the only way they can protect us from themselves. Then we feel more lonely than ever.
Veterans with PTSD and depression seem to have more physical health problems, too, than people without PTSD. According to Tull, people with PTSD and depression experience more pain, diabetes, sexual problems, obesity, and cardiovascular and respiratory issues. They’re more likely to make risky lifestyle choices, as well, such as smoking, not exercising, and drinking too much.
As you can see, veterans with PTSD and depression are going through a lot. So what can we do to support our partners and learn to cope with their PTSD and depression so we don’t lose ourselves in the struggle?
Coping With Our Veterans’ PTSD and Depression
Even if your situation feels hopeless, and you feel helpless in it, there are ways to cope so you can help your spouse and yourself start to heal. Believe it or not, a lot of hope lies in you since social support is the most important factor in recovery from PTSD and depression.
Don’t underestimate yourself. Your veteran needs you. Here’s how you can help:
- Encourage your spouse to do things. Talking about what happened makes some people with PTSD and depression feel worse, so getting their minds on something else might be a better route to take.
- Let them tell you what makes them feel safe and calm. Our spouses know what they need from us. All we have to do is listen.
- Let them talk about what happened as many times as they need to. This is how veterans start to process what happened, desensitize themselves to their trauma, and associate triggers with safety rather than danger.
- Assure them you aren’t going anywhere. This gives our veterans hope when they feel hopeless. At least they know they’ll always have us.
- Make routines and encourage the family to do tasks together. This can enhance our vets’ self-worth when they might not feel all that great about themselves.
- Make plans. Give everyone something to look forward to.
- Point out your partner’s strengths. We need to remind our spouses of reasons to feel good about themselves and their lives again.
- Encourage treatment. Don’t force your spouse to do anything, but let them know there are treatment options for someone struggling with PTSD and depression that address both issues.
And what can you do for yourself? One thing you can do is avoid judging your feelings. You probably have a lot of them, and many of them seem to contradict each other. Remind yourself that anyone in your position would feel the same way.
Also, make sure you’re eating right, getting out a little bit, and talking to people, and don’t abandon activities you love. Right now, you need something for yourself more than ever.
Some of the techniques our veterans use to calm down and cope with stress, such as meditation and deep breathing, will probably work for us, as well.
If you think you could use some help taking care of yourself and managing your stress, there are plenty of community resources for veterans’ wives that can offer advice and support. You may also find tips and inspiration in other military wives’ blogs, such as the ones included in Feedspot’s Top 100 Military Wife Blogs list.
It’s all about having as much compassion for ourselves as we do for our partners. It’s about recognizing that we’ve been hurt, too.
The heart of the matter isn’t how PTSD and depression are related or if the combination is a distinct condition of its own. What matters is they are connected, and the thousands of vets and spouses who live with them deserve attention, options, and help.
If you agree, go ahead and share this. Help educate people about a little-understood issue that twists too many lives. If you have your own story to tell, feel free to share that, too. People need to hear it, and you and your veteran deserve the chance to heal and enjoy life again.