A Family Guide to Depression
Family is the foundation of who we are as people. Our identities, our emotions, our outlook on life; they all stem from our blood bonds. Family ties can lift us up, but they can also be heavy weights. We depend on loved ones when we’re in need, and one of the most vulnerable situations that humans can endure is depression.
How do your relationships affect your psychological landscape? Why is family an important consideration when it comes to seeking therapy? And what should you do if your mother, sister, son or grandfather exhibits signs of depression?
IDENTIFYING DEPRESSION IN FAMILY MEMBERS
The symptoms of depression are sometimes hard to diagnose because some people compensate by putting on a proverbial “happy face”, but a loved one should be advised of the biggest warning signs of depression:
These symptoms are difficult enough to maneuver when you identify them in an office mate or other casual acquaintance, but they are especially complicated when they involve a family member. Depression doesn’t just affect the person who has it; the condition bleeds into his or her relationships as well. You interact with your family every day, and depression will factor into these exchanges heavily.
It’s important that you not allow the depression to dictate your interactions. In other words, don’t allow a depressive outburst to destroy your familial bond. Identify depression for what it is: a disease. Seek professional help just as you would with any other medical condition and work together to bring your loved one back into a healthier disposition.
Depression will strike an estimated 10% of Americans at some point in their lives. While it is yet undetermined how much of this condition is caused by genetics vs. environment, the statistics on familial correlation are astounding. While only approximately 3-5% of the U.S. population experience recurrent depression (more than one incident, often originating during young adulthood), then their close relatives are four to five times more likely to also develop signs of depression.
These studies also detail that females suffer from the condition at a rate that is double that of males. The raw numbers show that 12 million American women encounter clinical depression every year; that factors into the reality that 1 in 8 U.S. women will face this eventuality at some point in her life. While the occurrence is greatest during the ages of 25 to 44, depression doesn’t discriminate; it starts to affect girls at a faster rate than boys during adolescence and continues into adulthood. In fact, over 50% of women who were surveyed on the matter believe it is “normal” to be depressed during menopause, eschewing the need for treatment.
Motherhood is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Every challenge brings anxiety and every heartbreak brings sadness. In fact, the biological process of giving birth can be fraught with vulnerability, as the statistics indicate. An estimated 1 in 10 new mothers suffer from the effects of postpartum depression. This can have deleterious effects on a baby’s development, since her mother may be less outwardly affectionate towards the infant. Even something as simple as a lack of eye contact can trigger feelings of anxiousness and loneliness in the newborn, which can cause loss of sleep and a chain of other health issues.
But pregnancy isn’t the only phase of life that triggers psychological distress. 1 in 4 women overall report having experienced depression at some point in their lives. Societal pressures are intense on everyone, especially working moms, which contributes to the alarming statistic that two-thirds of females suffering from depression don’t seek treatment for their condition. This sense of helplessness has a way of tricking down to the next generation. In fact, depression rates are two to four times higher in children with depressed parents than in children raised in homes where depression is not a factor.
DEPRESSION IN FATHERS
While stereotypes and gender roles have perpetuated the myth that mothers are chiefly to blame for the mood and behavior of their young children (due to the fact that women have traditionally been expected to stay home with their kids until recent years), it should be noted that children can also inherit their father’s depression. A recent study illustrates how teenagers are just as likely to develop their father’s psychological traits as their mother, chief among them: depression.
This survey involved approximately 14,000 families and interviewed kids from the ages of 7 to 14. The fact that several mental health issues begin at adolescence, this sampling strategy was attempting to pinpoint the genesis of depression in youth and correlate it to their parental influences. It was a wake-up call for fathers of teenagers experiencing psychological distress. Instead of leaning on tired old assumptions, men were suddenly realizing that their depression was rubbing off on their teenagers. Despite the tendency to ignore their feelings and keep a stiff upper lip, these men were encouraged to seek professional help for fear that they could be passing their depression silently to their offspring.
DEPRESSION IN SIBLINGS: THE INFLUENCE OF BIRTH ORDER
The field of family psychology has conducted exhaustive studies on the myriad effects of birth order on interpersonal dynamics. How do our older siblings shape our personalities? How do we influence our younger siblings? How do our parents inherently treat us differently, or how do they strive to avoid such distinctions? And how do these phenomena relate to the development of depression within the family structure? Let’s break it down…
While it is great to have your parents’ attention all to yourself, it comes with a certain subset of pressures and expectations. You are the first in your family to fail, to succeed, and to do everything in between. Once your younger siblings are born, you lose the mantle of only child and are suddenly thrust into the role of babysitter and mentor. According to one comprehensive survey, this could lead to psychological distress. While 35% of those interviewed predicted that their oldest child would be the most successful, only 7% guessed that the first-born would be the most content. This focused sense of duty can lead to anxiety and depression in your oldest child later in life.
Every child is special, but much more attention gets paid to the youngest because they need the most care. Also, the oldest child is always achieving new firsts (first word, first to walk, first to graduate, etc.). This often leaves the middle child feeling empty; a perception that they are not “special” could pervade their psyche. Individuals who suffer from depression sometimes report these same feelings of nothingness or malaise. If you are unable to shake the idea that you’re too old to succeed or too young to be loved, these wounds could develop into a serious sense of depression. It’s important to make every child understand that they are unique, important, and loved.
As the baby in the family, you watch as everyone who raised you grows up, gets older and changes before you have a chance to understand these shifts for yourself. Your older siblings depart for college, your parents advance in age, and your reality matures faster and faster. This sense of helplessness can contribute to thoughts filled with anxiety (why aren’t I learning this quickly enough?) and depression (everyone is smarter, better, or more mature than me). According to one notable study, birth order has a marked effect on depression rates, and the further down you are in the birth order, the higher your disposition to be depressed. Younger children recorded having lower self-esteem, which plants the seeds of depression, while first-born kids scored higher on almost every metric.
DEPRESSION IN SPOUSES
A blood bond is much different than a marital bond; you’re born into the former while you choose the latter. You can’t divorce your birth family, but sadly divorce is an option for many marriages that are strained by the rigors of depression.
When one spouse experiences depressive symptoms, they inevitably affect the other. The condition actually alters your brain’s chemistry and internal structures, which has a ripple effect on sexual desire, mood, communication skills, and other interpersonal functions. It’s important to recognize your spouse’s psychological challenges and work together to overcome them without becoming entangled in the depression yourself.
Here are some guidelines to follow to ensure a healthy way forward for both you and your partner:
Marital spats can get heated regardless of a couple’s mental health status. Add depression into the mix and these arguments become fraught with blame and shame. Break the cycle by teaming up to fight the condition. Become his or her best advocate when it comes to monitoring medication, sticking to a doctor’s advice, and generally maintaining each other’s wellness.
Psychological health can’t be regimented into one-hour weekly sessions. Seeking professional help is vital, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. Listen to one another, apply what you’ve learned in your therapy sessions, and continue the conversation beyond the couch and into your everyday lives.
Parenting is the ultimate team sport. You need to plan not only your kids’ calendars, but also how you teach them about the world at large. That requires coordination on the part of your spouse. The same strategies should be applied to your approach to the subject of depression. Don’t hide your condition, but make sure the information you dispense is age appropriate. Young kids won’t fully understand the specifics and older kids won’t accept being coddled, so strike the right balance depending on your children’s ages.
The depths of depression can’t be whisked away overnight. Stick with the program for the long haul. After all, marriage is a lifelong commitment.
First, do no harm – Your spouse is already suffering through the lows of this psychological morass, so try not to make matters worse. Studies show that it is possible for one partner to exacerbate the other’s depression by exerting unwanted hostility toward her (the study focused mainly on husbands’ aggression toward their wives).
A LEGACY OF DEPRESSION
While the nature/nurture debate rages on, we’ll never be able to exactly pinpoint if depression stems solely from heredity or learned behavior. However, the familial evidence remains solid and staggering. One exhaustive study showed that children of depressed fathers were 70% more likely to develop the issue themselves, and that figure increased in the case of depressed mothers.
Instead of pointing the finger as to how the condition gets passed on, it’s important to deal with it once it does. By treating your depression now, you could prevent it from transmitting to the next generation. You want your children to inherit love and confidence, not pain and doubt. End the cycle of depression. Do it for yourself, do it for your kids, and do it for generations to come.