Mental health

Talk about a conversation killer. “So, I’m working on a new article and the topic’s depression.” The small crowd gathered around the party table seemed suddenly very intent on their meatballs and chicken wings.

“No comment,” said one, but still I pressed, knowing several there had struggled with depression in the past.

“Really? No comment?” And then the comments came: tales of crying for no reason at all; stories of indecision, even with choices as simple as sock color; recollections of sudden, angry outbursts; and then the soft voice of the wife of a depressive: “I didn’t even realize what was happening. It came on slowly, in little pieces.”

Depression—once a word that sent its sufferers to locked attics and frightening mental institutions—is now so common that by 2020 it may be the second most common work/home impairment (Beardslee, 2002). Research explains that depression is a disease, an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. Highly treatable with medication, therapy, or a combination, depression is still often given the silent treatment. Depressives don’t look sick and sometimes, especially to the outside world, they don’t act sick. But on the home front, it is a very different matter. Even in a Christian family, depression rears its ugly head and “can suck the energy right out of a household” (Harrar and DeMaria, 2006), affecting not only the one suffering from the illness but also the spouse and children.

Depression is not something to ignore or deny. Getting help is essential to the welfare of the entire family. Many excellent books and Web sites on the subject exist, but for a Christian perspective, I turned to Dr. Joshua Mears, Wisconsin Lutheran Child and Family Service in Mankato, Minn. Symptoms in adults include prolonged sadness; frequent, easy tearfulness; changes in sleep, appetite, or energy; inability to take pleasure in former interests; social withdrawal; increased irritability, agitation, worry, and anxiety; and thoughts of death or suicide. Dr. Mears also notes that “depressed fathers are more likely to report social withdrawal and reluctance to engage with family members.” In addition, children may exhibit frequent headaches and stomachaches, chronic boredom or apathy, chronic self-criticism, extreme sensitivity to rejection, and talk about running away and being angry or irritable. In adolescents, adds Dr. Mears, “emotional outbursts or the ‘I don’t care’ mentality is very common.”

If some of these symptoms exist for your loved one, encourage them to see a doctor for their own sake and that of the family. “Your doctor is a great place to start because they know you and they will be able to notice the marked difference if you are experiencing a Major Depressive Episode,” says Dr. Mears. “Also, if your doctor is not comfortable making the final diagnosis and treatment for your symptoms, they will make the appropriate referral to a mental health professional who is trained in assessment tools and specific profiles of depression.”

Depression fallout is a term used to describe the effects of depression on the family. “The impact of parental depression can be seen throughout the whole family system,” continues Dr. Mears. “Research has shown that children whose parents have been diagnosed with Major Depression are significantly impacted. Parents who are depressed have reported that they tend to spend less time interacting with their children, show less affection, and struggle with implementing household structure/rules. Subsequently, children of parental depression are at an increased risk for emotional/behavioral concerns, have difficulty in social situations, may have lower intellectual ability, and eventually may develop depressive symptoms of their own when they reach adulthood.”

Depression symptoms and even actual depression in the unaffected spouse are also likely. Dr. Mears suggests, “Getting the appropriate treatment as soon as possible is very important. Part of a successful treatment approach will be to help all the family members understand the symptoms of depression. This educational approach within treatment will help alleviate the potential for blame and resentment from building within the family.”

“When one member of a family is depressed, they can create a ‘positivity suppression’ in which all positive comments or interactions are attacked or degraded (Johnson & Jacobs, 2000). And this reduction in positive effect will increase the likelihood of eventual development of depression for other family members. Planning a schedule of positive family time (movies, board games, family devotions) and maintaining that schedule is very important.”

“Depression attacks the soul” (Beardslee, 2002). For a Christian family, this aspect of the disease is most frightening. “Maintaining regular church attendance where you can be sustained by the means of grace is perhaps the most important thing that we can do to counteract the sin within this world,” advises Dr. Mears. “Finding a Christian counselor who maintains that he or she uses the best evidence-based practices within mental health but yet insists on the authority of Scripture is also very important. Educate yourself and sustain your faith through daily prayer. As a family, make the decision that you will force yourself to communicate and verbalize the struggles that you are experiencing. Schedule a weekly family meeting time where you will talk about the process. This will help build empathy for each other and reduce the likelihood of negative anger and resentment.”

Depression does have an upside. A recent Reader’s Digest article says if you are depressed, “You’re more likely to be insightful . . . more in touch with the deeper truths about yourself, life, and the human experience” (Skenazy, March 2012). Dr. Beardslee reports that “many families, through understanding depression, develop an unusual closeness.” He also states that children often develop a type of resilience as they live with family depression.

Depression and its effects are not unfamiliar to me. When my husband, David, and I married nearly 20 years ago, one youngster acquainted with happy-go-lucky David quipped, “I want to live with them. They’ll be laughing all day.” In reality, David suffers from depression, and while to many he seems a jovial jokester, at home he often struggles to smile. In truth, it is also a struggle for us, his family, to smile around him when depression strikes. Still, structure, patience, support from family and friends, focusing on what’s good, and yes, a dash of humor can help. Many experts strongly recommend that caregivers remember to take time for themselves. Other sources suggest daily exercise and careful nutrition for both the depressive and his or her family.

So much more could be added to the list, but most important is regularly reading and hearing God’s promises to never leave us (Genesis 28:15), to come to him for rest (Matthew 11:28), to look to him for light even in the midst of depression’s darkness (John 1:5; Psalm 119:105). Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33,34). Depression is no laughing matter, and dealing with it will not be easy. But with God’s unfailing help and the resources he gives us to fight back, Christian families can grow on their walk to eternal happiness.

Ann M. Ponath lives in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, David, four children, and a big black dog.

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