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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.

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.

“If we had heart disease in my family, I’d be vigilant about that,” she says. “As parents, we all want our kids to be perfect and happy and completely healthy. So my big hope was that this misses my kids --it’s not an easy thing to deal with in life. If it doesn’t, we’re going to get them the right help.”

That’s the proper approach, says Julie Totten, whose brother, Mark, committed suicide at age 26 after undiagnosed depression. “I felt devastated because he had a treatable condition,” she says. Totten founded Families for Depression Awareness, a group that helps families recognize and cope with depression and other mood disorders.

Totten suggests that families with a history of depression establish a relationship with a mental health professional before a child at risk develops symptoms of depression. “There aren’t many child psychiatrists, so if you have a crisis, it’s hard to find somebody,” she says.“It’s almost better to make an appointment and have regular checks.” And it behooves parents with a family history of the disease to educate themselves about the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

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