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We became a pair of BF and GF recently, at which point we had already been university schoolmates for 2 years.

At the very first few days of acquaintance, during a casual talk about our experiences in high schools, she mentioned that she had had a suspension for 1 year during Senior 1 (US equivalent: Grade 10). Only until recently did I have a chance to ask her about the reason for the suspension, and she replied with a single word: depression. I was instantly shocked upon hearing the response and hugged her tightly.

Fortunately, she didn't have any signs of that in my two years of knowing her, and that night was a really lovely night we had together after all.

What I immediately did afterwards was to Google about "depression" after accompanying her back to her dormitory, so I could have some basic ideas about depression. Many Google results suggested that depression may reinstate under certain circumstances, among which were "triggers", i.e., the same thing that triggered the initial depression happening again, or brought up in memory. (I don't have any experiences with depression - she's the first person around me that I know to have had depression in the past.)

With that in mind, I was very serious about that topic and brought up neither "depression" nor her suspension in any way in the next few days. But I thought I need to know her reason.

The background here is, her status has been pretty well in the past 2 years (her suspension only lasted for a single year and ended 4 years ago) and she's made great progresses in interpersonal relationships, particularly with me. She said she was afraid of love and never believed it a few months back, but not long before she agreed to be my girlfriend. That was an incredible change IMO.

The situation here is, she herself is the only person I could ask about, because it's known that only her family know about this (and not her past schoolmates or friends), while I need to avoid them until necessary. I have no more direct information other than: the suspension lasted for a year; it was because of depression; no one outside her family knows about this (now adding myself as another exception); no more therapy is ongoing (including taking medicine regularly). I have completely no idea about the cause or the severity, and I'd like to know about those.

Long story short, with that in mind that anything unknown could potentially "trigger" the depression (again), how do I safely ask my girlfriend about her past depression, and find out if there was any particular cause?

(I have the feeling that it might be just OK to ask directly, but I have never seen real depression in my life, and I want to err on the side of caution.)

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I've been on both sides of this issue, so I'm going to provide 2 parts to my answer: one from the perspective of the person being asked and one from the perspective of the person asking. I'll start with the perspective of the person being asked and explain what I found helpful when others were asking me about sensitive issues, and then I'll talk about what I've found has worked for me asking others about sensitive issues.

From the perspective of the person being asked

To provide a little bit of background, when I was in college I was diagnosed with depression and I spent about a year in counseling for it. I've had a few people, most notably my fiancee, ask me questions about it. The approach that my fiancee has taken over the course of our relationship has been the best one.

What my fiancee did

At the beginning, my fiancee did not ask a lot of questions. Instead, she started off by saying

I would like to hear more, but only if and when you are comfortable sharing that.

This gave me the comfort of being able to control when and how much information I gave. As our relationship got more serious, she started asking questions more, but she was very specific about it. She didn't ask broad questions and she only asked questions as a follow up to something I had said. Once again, the key thing happening was that she gave me the ability to control how much information I gave and when I gave it. A good example of this is a conversation we had about Christmas.

Her: I can't wait, Christmas is my favorite holiday.

Me: Christmas used to be my favorite holiday, but since I've dealt with depression I don't like it anymore.

Her: What part of your depression made it so bad?

She waited for me to bring up my depression, and then took the opportunity to ask a very targeted question that would help her understand it better. That put me at ease and made me more comfortable sharing such personal information, which ultimately led me to share more than I otherwise might have.

From the perspective of the person asking

I've been on the asking end of sensitive issues (mental health as well as a number of other things) with my friends quite a bit. My typical approach is to wait for my friend to mention the issue and then ask permission to talk about it.

Oh, I'm sorry to hear that you were depressed, would you mind if I asked you about it?

I've had some friends say that it was ok for me to ask and some friends say that it's not ok for me to ask, but they've all expressed gratitude to me for asking first. It's very important that you be prepared to drop the topic and not ask if she says that it's not ok for you to ask.

  • My primary concern was that if I make her reminisce too much or too deep, it may cause some other long-term issues (like the depression reinstated) that wouldn't happen were I not to ask at all. This is the key difference from asking about all other kinds of sensitive information IMO. – iBug May 22 at 2:35
  • Following the above comment, my question was not about properly asking about sensitive information, but about staying on the safe side when the action of asking itself is potentially dangerous. I think I've made this point clear by starting the last paragraph with "with that in mind". – iBug May 22 at 2:58
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    I'm accepting this answer because you're correct about asking "can I ask" first, even though she responded that "Don't ask about this. I've been fine. No worries." and I ceased the topic then. – iBug May 22 at 16:40

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