Depression in parents can be difficult to spot
Mums and dads struggling to cope often put on a brave face but they need to ask for help, writes Dr Claire Hayes.
Parenting can be wonderful and it can be challenging. As the child grows, the challenges will change but probably not lessen. Pressures can range from homework, organising play-dates, music lessons and sports to parents worrying about the threat of their relationship breaking up, their children's response to a new partner who also has children and/or juggling childcare with work.
Some parents may also worry about their children's constant demands for the latest phone and whether they will be a victim of cyber-bullying. As the child grows into adolescence, additional stressors may include worries to do with college fees, future employment and risks associated with alcohol, drugs and/or sex.
Being a parent was never easy and for many, the challenges are getting harder while the supports may seem less. It makes sense f or parents, at some stage, to feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed, to feel useless, angry and/or guilty. Practically every parent will at some time have thought that he or she is not doing a good enough job. They may compare their parenting abilities unfavourably to others. Can we be surprised that some parents will also experience depression? It can be difficult to spot, though, as they might be the people who always seem in great form. You may never realise the effort it has taken for them to get out of bed and get dressed.
Depression is a real difficulty and parents of all ages and at any stage of their child's development can experience it.
The World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the number one global burden of disease by 2030, surpassing heart disease and cancer. It defines depression as a common mental disorder characterised by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration.
Depression is different from the usual mood fluctuations and short-lived emotional responses to challenges in everyday life. Especially when long-lasting and with moderate or severe intensity, depression may become a serious health condition. It can cause the affected person to suffer greatly and can affect how they are at work and in the family. People with depression may have a sense of hopelessness about themselves, the world and the future.
At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. However, it is so important to remember that a diagnosis of depression does not mean that suicide is the inevitable outcome. Hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland survive the bleakness of depression and go on to live fulfilling lives.
Parents who have depression can have the added stress of worrying about the impact their depression may have on their children. We know that children can be affected by parents' constant low moods and can learn to cope in different ways. Some young children may cry, act out or become extremely 'good' so as not to cause any trouble. Adolescents may become protective of the parent and in some instances, even become his or her carer for a while. Sometimes depression really is the 'elephant in the room'.
Parents may put themselves under extreme pressure to appear 'happy' rather than admit to their teenager that they are experiencing depression. This may seem understandable but it does not work, as young people usually have a very good sense of what is really going on. We often underestimate how resilient they can be. It can be a massive load off their shoulders if a parent who has depression is honest with them. While we would all hope that young people never have to face difficult challenges in their lives, it is only fair to equip them to cope with the unexpected as best they can. Seeing a parent courageously take support and manage depression can be one of the most unexpected gifts a young person may ever receive.
Four tips to help you if you are a parent who has symptoms of depression
1. Pay more attention to what you are doing than on how you are feeling
It can be very easy to become very upset by feelings of sadness, depression, exhaustion, upset, guilt and anger. While gently acknowledging that you may feel any or all of these, pay particular attention to what you are doing. For instance, you may not be sleeping well or frequently snap, drink, eat and/or smoke too much. Are you telling people how you really are, or are you pretending that you are fine and quietly withdrawing from people who love you? Do you blame yourself for being a 'bad' parent and possibly even convince yourself that everyone would be better off if you were not here? Unless you pay attention, it can be very easy to do actions such as these automatically. Paying attention can highlight what you can do to start turning things around for yourself.
2. Get and take real support
It can be very difficult for any of us to raise a hand and say, 'please help me'. These words can seem weak, selfish or childish. Yet, few parents hesitate to say loudly enough so that they are heard, 'please help my child'! If you recognise that you do have symptoms of depression that are constant over a two-week period, visit your GP and take support. Also please confide in at least one adult who you know does really care about you. Doing so, might be the most difficult thing you will ever do - it might also be the most important.
3. Recognise and appreciate what is going well
It is too easy for all of us to focus on what is going wrong. If you are a parent who has a tendency towards depression, you may be an expert at doing this. You might easily list to yourself all of the things you did 'wrong' and spend time beating yourself up. It can take courage to stop and actually catch something that is going well and to appreciate these. Please take time to remind yourself of the joys of being a parent! Children and teenagers can be very resilient and forgiving. The 'I love you anyway' hug of a young child or embarrassed shrug of a teenager can be wonderful. Some children really do need to know that life can be difficult, that parents can struggle to cope and that there are always ways of getting and taking support.
4. Learn more about depression and how to cope with it
Aware offers two Life Skills courses free of charge to help people understand depression and to know what to do to manage it pro-actively. These are both based on cognitive behavioural principles. Independent external evaluation has shown that they are effective in reducing depression. One of these is a six-session course that takes place free of charge throughout Ireland. The second is an eight-module course that is online. It is also free of charge and is supported by trained Aware volunteers. The Aware website (www.aware.ie) contains a library of lectures on depression that have been given by professionals over the past three years.
A tip to help you if you are someone who is concerned about a parent who has symptoms of depression.
If you recognise that someone you care about has symptoms of depression, please do something more than offering support. Practical help might be to organise an enjoyable activity for the parent such as a walk, a trip to the cinema or going out for a coffee while the children are at school, in crèche, or in childcare. If the person you are concerned about works in the home full-time, it might be very useful to offer to fill in for a morning or afternoon and allow him or her time off. Spend time paying attention to what the person you are worried about is doing well. If you don't, you might focus on the unwashed hair and dirty dishes and not see the huge achievement of a child or adolescent at school, fed and dressed.
Remember, even though people who have depression might feel hopeless, there is always hope.
÷ Dr Claire Hayes is Clinical Director of Aware and has 20 years' experience as a clinical psychologist and educational psychologist.
÷ Aware's secondary schools programme, Beat the Blues, is available free of charge to senior-cycle classes nationwide. For more info see aware.ie. Aware also offers a range of support services for individuals experiencing depression or related conditions: Support Line: 1890 303 302; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Health & Living