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Depression: When It’s All in the Family

If depression runs in your family, you can help yourself -- and your children -- identify and cope with the condition.

Treating Depression in Families

For Boschee, her brother’s diagnosis of depression during his 30s gave both siblings insight into their father’s unhappiness. In the 1970s, he was a small-town Montana newspaper publisher whose undiagnosed depression led to hopelessness, divorce, and other problems before his death from emphysema at age 50. “He would become incapacitated, unable to get out of bed -- very, very unhappy. He had problems with drug and alcohol abuse,” Boschee says. “He just got taken out of life very easily."

“My dad was this really brilliant, creative guy -- beautiful family, thriving business -- and had every reason to be happy,” she adds. “And when my brother was diagnosed, it suddenly made sense to us why he wasn’t, and it was because he was dealing with an illness.”

When Boschee’s brother became so depressed that he couldn’t concentrate on his job, he joined the roughly 14.8 million American adults who struggle with major depression in any given year. Unlike his father, he sought help and began taking antidepressants. “He was so aggressive in treating it because he has children and he really wants to be there for them,” Boschee says. When his two teenagers developed depression, they, too, got prompt treatment.

Children: First Anxiety, Then Depression

Boschee developed postpartum depression after the birth of her first son, Jack, and recovered after 18 months of treatment. Even with so much family depression, she was surprised when during toddlerhood, Jack began showing symptoms of anxiety, such as extreme nail-biting and fear of loud noises and imaginary creatures. Now 4, he has begun having panic attacks. The first time, “He had come home from school and was on the couch and told me that his heart was beating too fast and that he couldn’t breathe,” Boschee says.

Jack’s situation fits with some of Weissman’s observations. When she studied her three generations of depressed family members, offspring at high risk for the disorder often had anxiety problems as young children. Then onset of depression peaked between ages 15 and 34.

“The sequence seems to be anxiety disorders, mostly phobias, before puberty. Then in adolescence you begin to see depression, and sometimes in late adolescence and early adulthood, especially in boys, you see substance abuse,” Weissman says. “If you have a child of a depressed parent and before puberty they start developing fears, that’s something to be cautious about.” While all small children have fears, those with anxiety disorders have unusually intense fears, experts say.

Helping Children at Risk for Depression

Right away, Boschee took Jack to a mental health specialist for an evaluation. So far, her second son, Ben, age 1 1/2, shows no signs. But she plans to have specialists screen both boys regularly for depression as they grow.

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