Mental Health

Monday 28 July 2014

'How can I help my son's chronic depression?'

Dr Nina Byrnes

Published 07/10/2013|04:00

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The first step to helping your son and your family is understanding exactly what depression is.

My 25 year old son has had depression for several years now. He had a terrible year when it started – he lost his job, his relationship ended and he had to move home.

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I am trying to be as supportive as possible but he is moody, irritable and difficult to talk to. I am trying to get him to start thinking forwards, but he won't try to look for work or socialise. It is getting more and more difficult for me to remain positive as I feel like having him at home is getting everyone else down. I am worried his mood is also affecting his siblings.

What can I do to help him but also keep the rest of the family well?

Dr Nina replies:

You are stuck in a difficult situation. Being a typical Irish Mammy you are trying to be everything to everybody. The fact is that just isn't possible.

The first thing to know is you are not alone. Depression and anxiety are very common problems affecting up to one in nine people. This is more common than breast cancer but society doesn't talk about it in the same way.

There is still a stigma associated with mental health disorders and so many suffer in silence, and often family members are embarrassed to discuss the illness with friends for fear of being judged.

This silence leaves both those with mental health disorders and those exposed to it feeling isolated, helpless and frustrated.

The first step to helping your son and your family is understanding exactly what depression is. It is a medical condition that can affect all nationalities, races, social classes and ages.

Depression is not a weakness or a mood that can be shaken off or improved by will. Your son cannot just snap out of it and move forwards. It is a real and emotionally painful state of mind.

We may all experience periods of feeling down but if this is persistent and lasts longer than two weeks then depression may be the underlying cause. The exact cause of depression is unknown.

Studies have shown that there are physical changes in the brains of those with depressed mood. Chemicals in the brain are associated with mood and most drug treatments for depression aim to modify these. Other factors are genetics, family, environment and hormones. People who suffer from depression may be slow to recognise the illness or to seek help for it. You can help your son by being there to listen to him and supporting him in seeking help. Starting with some open-ended conversations can help.

Rather than pointing out the positive in his life and suggesting he move forward, maybe just remind him that he is important to you and that you are there to support him no matter what and in whatever way he needs. It is important that he sees a doctor and attends a counsellor or psychologist. Don't be hurt if he doesn't confide entirely in you – many people with depression feel lots of guilt about burdening those who are close to them. Just pointing him towards professionals is a great help. This will also take some of the pressure off you as a carer and allow you to go back to just being his Mum.

If you are concerned that his mood is slipping despite seeking help or that he is giving up on life do let his doctor or counsellor know – they are trained to help in this situation. Charities such as Pieta House and Aware are a great support to many.

As you pointed out, your son's mood has an impact on the entire family. Lots of studies have shown that those living with people with mental illness are at risk of developing depression themselves. There are a number of ways you can help avoid this.

Most importantly, please recognise that it is not selfish of you to need to maintain your own life. Be clear and speak about your own emotions and feelings.

Find a good friend who will listen, or seek counselling or support yourself. Allow the other members of the house to talk to you honestly about their feelings living with your son.

Support each other. Set boundaries for yourself. You love your son but you cannot fix him. Be realistic in your own expectations and realise you are his mother not his therapist.

Maintain your own life outside the home. Don't feel guilty about going to work or out with friends – you have a right to be happy.

Maintaining your own mental and physical health will ultimately make you feel more in control and better able to deal with the stress at home.

Please remain positive but remember in the words of Ronald Reagan: "You can't help everyone but everyone can help someone".

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