Depression in Parents: Understanding Signs and Finding Support

It can be easy to brush aside as we focus on our kids and family, but depression in parents deserves – and requires – early attention to properly treat.

A worried middle aged man sitting on a park bench

In recent years, there’s been a shift in mental health care to focus on kids – especially given growing rates of depression in kids. While parents’ needs can often take a backseat to our children’s, though, depression in parents deserves equal attention. It’s something that rings true for Kevin Fischer, a father in Plymouth.

After his 23-year-old son Dominique’s death from mental illness and suicide in 2010, Fischer fell into a deep depression that he masked from friends – and family.

“My family, even my wife and kids, had no idea what a bad situation I was in,” the Wayne County dad says. “People have this misconception of what people who are depressed look like. They think you’re supposed to look broken somehow. But I learned, like many people (with depression), that I could put a happy face on, a strong face on so that I showed them what I thought they needed to see.”

Fischer battled his feelings of hopelessness, hitting rock bottom one day and even contemplating ending his life. Desperate for help for her husband, Sonya, Kevin’s wife, looked online and found a support group that she pleaded with him to join, encouraging him to dedicate his time to lifting up others.

The experience led Fischer to become involved in National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nationwide grassroots organization dedicated to supporting families affected by mental illness. Today, he’s the executive director of the NAMI Michigan.

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As a parent, admitting that you need help – and then trying to find the time and resources to get the assistance you need – can feel daunting. That’s especially true as you’re trying to juggle everything else that comes with life from your work to your kids to just the basics of everyday living.

And yet finding support can make all the difference in your own life – and in the lives of your family.

Signs of depression

Around 7 percent of American adults – or approximately 16 million – have had a depressive episode over the last year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And when it comes to depression in parents, research from several organizations, including the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, estimates that 7.5 million moms and dads are affected by depression.

“The signs of depression are the same in parents as those of any adult,” says Terry McLaughlin, an Easterseals Michigan evidence-based practice coordinator and youth peer support specialist supervisor. “Those include a tendency toward non-healthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse and alcohol, along with being withdrawn.

“Also, there’s a common tendency for parents with depression to have more marital conflict.”

Occasional feelings of depression are not uncommon. However, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points out experiencing severe symptoms that impact how you function may indicate that you’re suffering from clinical depression.

The standard diagnosis for depression looks at how many, and how severe, symptoms are over a two-week period. Symptoms including:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, helplessness or pessimism
  • General irritability and decreased energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Losing interest in activities and hobbies you once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite – either losing or gaining weight
  • Body aches and pains and/or digestive issues without a physical cause
  • Thoughts of death, thinking about suicide or attempting suicide

Causes of depression

There is no one cause of depression. Mental health experts point to a variety of different risk factors that may make a person more susceptible to depression. The NIMH notes, “Current research suggests that depression is caused by a combination or genetic, biological, environmental and psychologic factors.”

Common risk factors include:

  • Family history
  • Major changes in your life
  • Stress
  • Trauma
  • Physical illnesses and/or medications

Treatment for depression

Depression is treatable. But it’s important to understand that depression is a complex mental disorder, and it can take time to understand what treatment approach works best for you. Common treatments include talk therapy and may also involve medication.

To find support, you may start by talking to your primary care physician, who can connect you with resources. Other resources include Easterseals Michigan and NAMI Michigan, which also offer regular parenting support groups.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of early intervention,” McLaughlin says. “Parents may feel like they’re just tired and dismiss symptoms. But depression is one of the most wide-spread diagnoses among adults.”

And when parents feel better supported themselves, it’s easier for them to offer support to those around them, including their kids.

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