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Being A Depressed Parent

Did you know 20 percent of all adults will suffer at least one bout of depression in their lifetime?

In any one year, 15 to 20 million people struggle with the disease. Invariably, many of those people are parents.

"When parents become depressed, they bear a double burden. Even as they wrestle with the darkness that clouds their lives, they must struggle to maintain their role as guardians of their children's future. Making matters worse, depression is often completely mystifying both to the sufferers and to those around them," says Dr. William Beardslee in his book "Out of the Darkened Room: When a Parent is Depressed." He is the chairman of psychiatry at Boston's Children's Hospital.

Thought parents may fear their children will end up depressed as well, Beardslee says that should not be a concern. While chances of becoming depressed do increase when you have a depressed parent, the increase is surprisingly small.

About 6 percent of all children suffer from depression, and 12 percent of kids with a depressed parent become sick - not a dramatic difference.

Depressed parents can still raise happy, well-adjusted children. Beardslee describes this as raising a "resilient" child. He says there are three things parents must do to insure this.

  1. Help kids develop and maintain relationships, especially ones that have been disrupted due to depression.
  2. Help kids be successful away from home - in school and in the community.
  3. Help kids understand what's happening in the family.

This last point can be especially difficult. Parents tend not to discuss their illness at all. Once they've decided to break this silence, Beardslee suggests holding a family meeting. He doesn't mean a casual, around-the-dinner-table, spontaneous meeting.

"Talk with each child separately and tell him or her that a meeting is coming up. Ask if there are questions or concerns that they want addressed. Be ready to hear whatever they have to say. It may take more than one conversation for you, your spouse and your children to get ready," the author warns.

Dr. Beardslee says when parents talk to their kids, they need to approach depression as they would heart disease or another physical aliment. Explain what's wrong with Mom or Dad, explain what treatment they are receiving, explain how doctors are tackling the problem. It's important to tell kids what's being done to protect them and to make sure their lives continue as uninterrupted as possible.

He also warns the sick parent that he or she must believe what's being said; you can't just say things to make your kids feel better. This does not necessarily mean parents must be well on the road to recovery before holding the conversation, he adds.

Finally, families need to realize that depression does not have to tear them apart. Working together and understanding the problem can strengthen family bonds.

In the last chapter of his book, Beardslee offers this affirmation to parents:

"You, as a parent, have the resources to cope with and deal with this illness, as long as you recognize your depression and as long as you can find the help you need to raise your children. In fact, you have the capacity to do a wonderful job with your children despite the illness. Again and again, depressed parents torture themselves with recriminations, guilt, and blame when in fact they are doing just fine.

"There are many opportunities to help your children, not just one chance. Many conversations are possible."

Dr. Beardslee is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Boston's Children's Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The book arose from his experiences in these roles and his belief that depression is misunderstood and under-treated. He has a deeply personal commitment to this issue as well; his older sister became depressed in her mid-twenties and committed suicide.