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