How Depression Affects Your Family

Moms who are depressed often suffer in silence -- but this common illness can also take a heavy toll on their children. That's why getting treated is more important than ever.


Missy Nicholson, of Grafton, Massachusetts, had struggled with depression on and off since age 10, but it wasn't until she became a mother that she realized she wasn't the only one suffering because of her illness. Three years ago, when Nicholson was pregnant with her second child, she sank into a depression so severe that she spent most of each day in bed. "I didn't even get up to make my daughter breakfast or see her off to school," Nicholson recalls. Her daughter, Katherine, then 8, suddenly developed a phobia about going to school.

A social worker linked Katherine's newfound separation anxiety to her mother's depression: "She was afraid to leave me alone," Nicholson explains. When Nicholson started making the effort to pull herself together in the morning and restore some structure to her daughter's day, Katherine's phobia disappeared. But recognizing how profoundly her own emotional state was affecting Katherine made Nicholson feel even worse. Indeed, depressed mothers bear a double burden: "You feel awful to begin with," Nicholson says, "and then you see how your disease is having this terrible impact on your kids."

Millions of children are caught in the web of maternal depression. As many as one in four women will suffer from this biological illness at some point in her lifetime, including about 10 percent of new mothers who develop postpartum depression (PPD). Not only is a child with a depressed parent two to four times more likely to develop depression himself before adulthood, but extensive research has shown that a mother's depression, especially when untreated, can interfere with her child's social, emotional, and cognitive development.

If you think you might be depressed, reading this article may be difficult, but you owe it to yourself and your children to get the help you need. "Depressed parents often worry that they've irrevocably damaged their children -- but they haven't," says William Beardslee, M.D., a professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Out of the Darkened Room: Protecting the Child and Strengthening the Family When a Parent Is Depressed. "Our research has shown that kids are incredibly resilient and that there is a lot that parents can do to help their children be strong, healthy, and happy."

Helpless and Hopeless

People who've been depressed say that it's almost impossible to explain what it feels like. "You become unbearably miserable, lethargic, and incapable of any joy or enthusiasm," says Anne Sheffield, author of Sorrow's Web: Overcoming the Legacy of Maternal Depression. Depressed moms often hide the way they're feeling because they're ashamed that they haven't bonded with their babies and worry that their children might even be taken away from them. New fathers, who are often overwhelmed themselves, may not pick up on their wives' despair.

In fact, as many as two thirds of all depressed women suffer in silence. Perhaps this is because of the stigma attached to mental illness -- or because mothers are so focused on their families that they disregard their own well-being, says Peter Jensen, M.D., director of the Center for the Advancement of Children's Health at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York City. Even moms who recognize their symptoms often assume they're just stressed and will eventually snap out of it -- or they try to tough it out on their own for fear of being considered weak or crazy. However, research has found that the longer your symptoms go untreated, the more likely you'll be to suffer from future episodes of depression. Getting treatment is as essential for depression as it is for diabetes, because moderate to severe depression rarely goes away on its own.

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