By Kayla Mitchell
My dad, a clinical psychologist, an outdoor adventurer, a popcorn enthusiast, and a harsh movie critic, is a parent with manic depression. Living most of his life with this struggle, my dad has come to know his depression intimately. He describes depression as a “sadness that permeates everything,” something that you cannot fully run from, even with the help of medication. Drawing the metaphor from the book, Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, my dad entirely relates to the metaphor of depression being like an “unholy ghost” creeping around the corner, aware of your every thought, and saturating it with sadness.
This sadness, however, can be an engine for learning within the family and for the individual. With an open mindset and conscious effort, all members of families contending with this unholy ghost can learn to work together better under challenging conditions.
These challenges can be daunting, since having a parent with depression or a debilitating mental illness can have a lasting impact on children. However, according to the National Research Council, the effects on children due to parental depression may be more or less prominent depending on other circumstances in the home, such as the mental stability of the spouse or the presence/lack of another parent.
Finding ways to cope
In fact, children who grow up with a parent with depression or other mental illness may actually live a different lifestyle than other children who have parents not suffering from mental illness. As they grow, children may be initially unaware that their family is any different. However, as they become older, they will likely become more aware of the warning signs and emotional cues that indicate the presence of mental illness in their parent.
As they learn to cope, they may learn over time to accept the fact that their depressed parent is not going to love them in the way or the amount that they crave. Yet, they can come to find happiness and strengthen their relationship with this parent by accepting all the efforts their parent makes to express love and concern. They can use these experiences to develop greater attunement to others’ emotions and experiences may ultimately heighten their abilities to be empathetic and understanding. My own experience growing up aligns with this narrative.
Before age 9 or 10, I was too young to really notice or differentiate my father’s moods and the reasons behind them, since what I was experiencing was all that I had ever known. By that age, however, I had enough life experience to start recognizing something different about my dad that I did not see in other dads. For example, I noticed I was tiptoeing around him—consciously or unconsciously—worrying that I was somehow part of the problem. Though not true, this unrealistic concern affected my mood and actions as a child.
The impact on kids
New York Times author, Emma G. Keller, in an article about tiptoeing around depressed parents shared her childhood experience living with a severely depressed parent. She mentions the onset of anxiety that she felt when she was around her depressed parent—an anxiety which is typical in some children with depressed parents. Reasons for this anxiety include possible biological factors that make the child more prone to anxiety or perhaps the unusual stress a child may sustain due to dealing with the rapid or unexpected fluctuations of a parent’s moods. Unfortunately, these children also may keep alive a false hope that the problem is situational, and if they can tiptoe well enough through the present moment, things might change. In my case, I know I tiptoed mostly because I did not want to believe that things might always be this way. Little did I know that one conversation with my father would completely shift my outlook for the better.
On a particularly memorable day, my dad talked with me about his depression. In the course of the conversation, he told me that before he and my mother decided to have me, they had a discussion about his concerns. He was worried about anything that might negatively impact me: whether I would have mental illness or not, whether he would be able to be mentally present, and whether his depression would lead him to stop assuming the responsibility of the father figure. He desperately did not want any of this to happen.
His comments on that day helped me come to terms with the many times that he wasn’t able to be the optimal father he had hoped to be. From that point on, I understood better his anguish and mine. Instead of guessing what was wrong, I now had a definition for why he acted or felt the way he did. I would come to know my father as a laid back and seemingly carefree individual, who just so happened to have a small ghost for a companion in this life.
I would also learn that for my dad it was difficult to connect and be emotionally involved as he wanted to be. This situation is described by Andrew Solomon in his TedTalk, “Depression, the Secret We Share.” He explained that depressives, or people with depression, are intensely aware of the pain that love and connection can sometimes bring. They know that depression can create a physical and emotional wall between depressives and their loved ones. Some of those barriers come because the fear of losing everything.
But as Solomon reminded his listeners, “There’s no such thing as love without the anticipation of loss.” In fact, because of the human need to love and be loved that anticipation of loss “can be the engine of intimacy” for most people. In other words, it defines what one may have courage to give. This is only more difficult to depressives who may often feel broken or wonder what good it is to invest in a relationship they might not be able to sustain.
While people without depression can understand this feeling of vulnerability, it can be especially prevalent and destructive in the minds of depressives. Though I have known the difficulties of living in a home with a depressed parent, I have also learned to be resilient. In fact, each family member has much they can learn from this situation—and as they do so, these efforts can result in their family’s ability to maintain composure, experience stability, and raise situationally aware children who are resilient.
Facing depression as a family
In facing these issues head-on as a family, both the one with depression and their supportive family members may each wonder what they can do to contribute to a more secure home. Here are two sides of common difficulties that give advice by setting reasonable expectations and increasing positive communication in the family, undoing many of the places and situations that this “unholy ghost” can haunt.
To the depressed parent: Set reasonable expectations
While meeting other’s expectations may be a challenge, you can make the choice to continually find ways to improve your relationships with others. Even if this “working on yourself” is in small steps and takes perseverance and strength—getting out of bed for an hour, cooking a meal, or talking to your family for a while—the effort will make a difference for you and your family members. Your special efforts even sporadically to engage with your family members by helping a child with homework, engaging in household tasks, or playing catch outside will matter in creating a store of positive memories.
Therapist Mark H. Butler shares powerful insights about his own depression and his family’s support in an article he wrote about ways to “live well.” He mentions the need to work on channeling the body, sifting through dark thoughts, ridding the self of toxic environments, and finding strength in spirituality.
To the family: Set reasonable expectations
The spouse and children of the depressed individual can be supportive by making an effort to re-evaluate and set reasonable expectations. My mother struggled with her expectations during their first couple years of marriage, and frequently complained to my dad that she did not feel loved or cared for by him. Later, she also worried that his lack of emotional investment would have negative effects on the family. However, she reached a turning point when she began to understand that his actions were not personal, which helped her become more proactive in helping my father. She set more reasonable expectations, especially when it came to his affection and care, and took time to appreciate his sacrifices.
Family members can be patient with their struggling loved one and understand that they may not be able to provide the emotional support they had hoped. They might show love differently than you would expect. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that your feelings and emotions are just as valid as theirs. Realizing that building a satisfying relationship might not come as fast or in the way you might hope can help you accept new ways of receiving and cherishing their expressions of love and caring.
To the depressed parent: Communicate openly
I was walking on eggshells for years because I never knew what or what not to talk about with my father. My dad is pretty laid back and easy to approach, but I was still worried that I could never talk about mental illness with him. He was never one to openly discuss his depression with me, even though he was someone who dealt with the effects of mental illness every day. As a result, I deeply appreciated the turning day when he broached the subject and made it more comfortable to discuss.
Depressed individuals can find it difficult to tell their children what they are experiencing, but it is important to be honest with them to prevent their anxiety and help them understand the reasons for the mood swings they will see. Depressed individuals might also help family members know what they appreciate and don’t appreciate as family members seek to help them feel better. These explanations should be tailored to the child’s age or ability to understand. Unlike a physical sickness where children might see the physical symptoms, a mental illness may be a bit harder to explain to a child who has not experienced many of the more noticeable symptoms. Openly discussing this challenge with them while they are young can give them a safe space for asking questions.
To the family: Communicate openly
Communication in the family is essential in families, especially for those that must cope with depression in the home. More than just talking, however, is the importance of communicating love in word and action. Family members can learn to express love to the depressed family member, even when it seems unwanted or unnecessary–verbally, in written form, or through acts of service. Loving communication can bring peace to the home and increase unity and mutual respect. By showing your love and support, you are showing the depressed family member that they are not alone.
Depression in families can be a journey of learning or a journey of misery. There are never going to be perfect days. Life is hard. Living with the unholy ghost of depression in a family is hard. However, adversity can unite and elevate as expectations are well set and love and care are shown.
Through my experience with my father, I have been given many valuable insights. He has shown me that people with depression are not damaged or broken individuals—though they may look at life a little differently. My dad has been an example of deepening his spiritual side during adversity by choosing to rely on his faith and the faith of others to help him through. He has powerfully taught me that the greatest gift we are given as broken and sinful human beings is Christ’s Atonement—a true symbol of hope. Despite every cloudy thought and the constant lingering of this “unholy ghost, His light can shine, ease burdens, and bring greater peace to families.
Kayla Mitchell is originally from Mississippi. She is starting her second year at Brigham Young University where she is majoring in Early Childhood Education.