Even if they are aware the significant other of a patient is depressed or anxious, cardiologists can't prescribe medication for them. But Goldberg says the doctor can and should recommend therapy.
Casciaro went to see a therapist after her husband got sick and found it immensely helpful. "I believe speaking to a professional was extremely important for both of us," she says.
Dorree Lynn, a therapist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and Florida has treated numerous spouses of heart attack victims and has found they benefit from close monitoring by a therapist as well as professional and family support. She works with a prescribing physician to offer medication and strongly suggest joining some form of group counseling.
"Never be isolated. Reach out or make sure family and friends are there for support. Hospitals offer support groups too so take advantage," she urges.
Although the study found more partners of heart attack patients committed suicide than the partners of those who suffered from other major illnesses, Lynn says that from her experience, suicide is not typically a major worry. The number of suicides in the study was relatively small.
It's not entirely clear why heart attacks hit spouses harder emotionally than other types of illness but the study's authors speculate their abrupt nature may be a contributing factor. Many patients go from being completely healthy to very sick in seconds--and many die. The majority of other diseases come on with a warning.
This is the first study to show how spouses of heart attack patients fare emotionally compared to spouses of those who are otherwise critically ill. Fosbøl believes the findings are significant because nearly seven million people worldwide experience a heart attack every year and there are few mechanisms in place to support their significant others.
"I would like to see a more formal way of screening spouses for depression in relation to the event, but also subsequently. A standardized program could potentially prevent many spouses from being depressed or taking their own lives," he says. "As a minimum, persons involved with patient care should be aware of the spouse and their mental reactions after a life-altering event such as an AMI."