In 2009, Sarah* started talking to a guy she’d met online. He lived in the U.S., a long way from her parents’ house in Western Canada, but she liked what she was learning through their conversations. He was passionate about the issues that mattered to him, for one thing, and she found that their personalities just “meshed really well.” At the time, Sarah still lived with her parents, commuting to her university classes and downtown where she worked part-time in retail. Dan* was a few years older, in his late 20s, but he also lived with his family and worked part-time. Neither of them had a lot of spare cash, but once they started dating, they began spending what they had on plane tickets, flying back and forth to visit each other.
About six months into their relationship, though, Dan lost his job.
Dan had always struggled with depression, at least for as long as Sarah had known him. It didn’t help to suddenly find himself unemployed. But the situation was hard on Sarah, too. “From then on, I became the sole earner in the relationship,” she said. Whenever they visited each other, she’d cover all the expenses for their outings — dinner, drinks, movies, gas — in addition to buying Dan presents. Dan’s depression, and this dynamic, would persist for the rest of their relationship, during which Sarah graduated from university, began working full-time and even moved to the city where Dan lived to pursue her dream career. They dated for seven years.
Sarah and Dan’s situation is far from unique. In 2017, the World Health Organization reported that more than 300 million people worldwide struggled with depression — an 18% increase between 2005 and 2015. (This increase may be credited to more people seeking out treatment in recent years, due to reduced stigma around depression as well population growth, which can lead to a larger number of diagnoses.) While coping with your own depression is rarely easy, there are also many people like Sarah, who don’t struggle with depression themselves but lend support to loved ones who do. This work can often be emotionally taxing. But as Sarah quickly learned, supporting a partner through depression often requires money, too.
A vicious cycle
When Chris started to vomit blood, he knew it was time to quit. Like his fatigue, his recent short temper and the psoriasis he was developing on his head and arms, the trigger for his ulcer was clear: his job.
“I was doing over 70 hours a week,” Chris said. “I was very stressed about working 10 hours, 12 hours a day… sometimes I’d stay until 9pm. The cleaners would be there, and I’m still working.” The pressure fuelled the first depressive episode that he struggled with in 2017.
Because Chris was living with his girlfriend, Nicole, it didn’t take long for her to notice that something was off. “It just made me really sad,” Nicole said. “For him to come home and be depleted, and just feel so sick that he couldn’t even eat.” After Chris was admitted to the hospital for his ulcer, they decided something needed to change. “I told him that if you want to quit, just quit and we’ll figure it out,” Nicole recalled. “The depression was getting worse and worse, and there wasn’t even any time for him to deal with it, because he was just working all the time… there was no relief.” Chris gave notice to his employer in Oakville, Ont., two months later.
At first, not having to work at an office was exciting — Chris had always wanted to start a business with his brother-in-law. They settled on a landscape design business, which made use of Chris’ background in corporate design and, importantly for Chris, required more manual labour than time sitting in an office. With about $25,000 in savings, Chris felt safe. But he quickly learned that starting a new business meant a lot of overhead costs, including a new truck, equipment and wages for the workers he and his brother in law had hired. “If I had a job and the job wasn’t finished for two months, I didn’t get paid for two months,” he said. “But I still had to pay my guys every week.”
The depression was getting worse and worse, and there wasn’t even any time for him to deal with it, because he was just working all the time… there was no relief
His depression quickly returned. If having too much work triggered his initial bout of depression, now the problem was that he didn’t have enough of it. “I think the stress went from work stress to money stress,” said Nicole. “He pretty much lost all his savings.”
“I felt hopeless,” Chris said. “I quit this job [because] I was stressed, and then I tried something else and was hoping it would somehow be a bit better.”
A few years into his relationship with Sarah, Dan registered in community college and for a while, his depression seemed to lift. “I think school was a good mental block for him where he could focus on something and feel better about himself,” said Sarah, adding that Dan would ace all his assignments and exams. When he graduated and moved onto university, though, the stress became too much to handle, and he began struggling with an especially bad depressive episode. “He started feeling like he was inadequate and like he wasn’t good enough,” said Sarah.
By that time, Sarah had moved to the same city as Dan because she had been offered a job nearby. She lived with him and his family at first, but because her commute to work took nearly two hours, she decided to move closer to the office, into an apartment that she shared with roommates.
I wanted to make sure he was happy... I didn’t realize at the time I was setting myself back financially
Sarah’s rent took up more than half her monthly income. But as a student, Dan made even less, so Sarah paid for everything: Ubers to get to his place, gas when he drove over to hers. She paid for restaurant meals, snacks and even clothes for Dan.
“At the time I thought it was worth it because he was the person I was in love with and I wanted to see him,” Sarah explained. “I wanted to make sure he was happy. I feel like I’m a very giving person in a relationship, so I didn’t realize at the time I was setting myself back financially.”
Nicole also took on most of the financial responsibility when Chris was working on his new business. She paid more for household expenses like groceries, helped out with rent twice and, during the summer, covered the costs of cottage trips and outings with friends. Because Chris now worked contract-to-contract and didn’t have a consistent income, Nicole started to take on extra shifts at her part-time job. She also worked full-time at an office.
“Some people, they’re not working for six months, so their partner knows they have to cover for six months,” said Nicole. “Whereas for me, I didn’t know when I had to cover. So I just made sure I was always constantly working the two jobs.”
Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, said that people who are caring for loved ones often start to struggle themselves. “We know that when one person suffers, it can also affect everyone as well — whether it’s a mental health problem or a physical health problem,” she said.
This was what happened to Sarah. During her time in the U.S., she missed her friends back home, she couldn’t relate to the all-male team she worked with and helping Dan manage his depression often left her tired. “I would go shopping or spend money,” she said. “I think I have a tendency to spend money when I’m depressed or stressed about stuff.”
“I also ate out way too much,” she added. “I would go out to eat. I’d get like a whole pizza and eat it by myself. I’m an emotional eater.”
By the time Sarah’s two-year work contract ended, she had racked up nearly $10,000 in debt. Her credit card balance had been at zero when she’d first moved.
I knew that this was really serious. I’m not going to add to his stress by bitching about having to pay
Nicole was also tired. Even though she was picking up extra shifts at her part-time gig, her budget was definitely tighter since Chris quit his office job. But because Chris had savings he could use, money didn’t worry Nicole so much as how he struggled between contracts. “What was harder was when he was home all day,” she said. “He was by himself for over 12 hours and that worried me.”
Still, she never felt bitter about the situation. “I felt fine because I could see just how depressed he was,” Nicole explained. “If he was just being lazy, I’d be like OK, you’re being annoying. But I could see that it was [hard for him], especially when he had to go on medication — I knew that this was really serious. I’m not going to add to his stress by bitching about having to pay.”
Sarah struggled more with her own relationship. “I think maybe a couple of years in, I started to feel some resentment,” she said. “Even though I was okay with spending money, I’ve never really splurged on myself when it came to food — like I would never order drinks at a restaurant because to me that seems like a waste of money. But [Dan] would get mad at me if I said, ‘don’t order a beer’ because I was paying for it.”
“It came to the point where I was like, ‘okay, if you want to order a beer you can go ahead, but you have to pay for it, I’ll pay for the rest.’ But he was unwilling to do that.”
Self-care is crucial
Kamkar said it’s easy to forget to take care of your own needs when you’re lending support to someone else. “We also need to engage in self care so that we can better help the other person,” she explained.
This involves taking care of your physical needs — getting enough sleep, for instance, or exercising regularly and eating well. But it also means seeking out emotional support, whether it be from friends, family or even more formal support groups.
Talking openly about depression — whether you experience it yourself, or you’re supporting someone who does — is important, Kamkar said, because it helps diminish stigma around the topic. It can also alert others that you may need support yourself. “We also know that the rate of mental health problems [has] increased over time,” said Kamkar. She credits this to the population growing in general, and the rising number of people growing into old age.
For Nicole, emotional support was always something she prioritized: even at the height of Chris’ depression, she made sure she spent a lot of time with her own friends as well. It definitely helped, too, that Chris had substantial savings. Even though Nicole had to work harder when Chris was struggling with depression, the pressure would have been worse if she had to fully support both of them.
“Our situation was quite lucky compared to couples that deal with really, really severe depression where a partner never has money,” she said. Chris started a new full-time job earlier this year.
Sarah and Dan, meanwhile, broke up in 2018. There were several reasons they decided not to stay together, but the financial strain didn’t help. “I think I learned a lot about myself,” Sarah said, looking back. “But I really wish I didn’t put myself in such a financial situation.”
* Names have been changed to protect privacy. Illustration by Taryn Gee.