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Depression in the Family

C.B. Lieber

The devastating effects of depression reach far beyond the depressed person. How family can deal with the struggle and help a relative regain equilibrium

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

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“Too many times, I’ve seen children who have suffered for years living with a depressed parent, ignorant of what was going on, confused and frightened,” says London-based psychotherapist Rabbi Yaakov Barr, MSc, PGDip, who specializes in treating severe depression

My husband Moish* is one of those people who’s laidback, happy, positive, really in touch with himself,” says Shoshana, an upbeat mother of five. “He and depression wouldn’t even be in the same dictionary.”

But after the birth of their fifth child, Shoshana experienced a major medical trauma that landed her in the hospital for several months, leaving Moish home with a newborn and four other children to care for. With his wife’s future uncertain, Moish tried valiantly to hold down the fort, but he wasn’t eating or sleeping well, and was crying a lot. At a family member’s insistence, he consulted with a psychologist, who diagnosed him with major depression resulting from the stress of their medical crisis.

“At first he was surprised,” Shoshana says. “It was the farthest thing from his mind that he could be depressed. Once I got home from the hospital, he just crumbled. I was so grateful to be alive, and he was crashing, retreating. He could barely manage his daily routine. Even though I was still healing physically, I felt our kids needed at least one functional parent. I had no choice but to step up to the plate and take care of the kids and our home.”


Does a cloud of unhappiness surround your husband, interfering with his regular functioning? Or is it your parent — or child — who can’t shake their misery and is withdrawing from the world? It’s no secret that depression is on the rise in the Western world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about nine percent of American adults have feelings of hopelessness, despondency, and/or guilt that lead to a diagnosis of depression, and about three percent have major depression, also known as major depressive disorder. While many studies have explored why depression affects modern society so greatly, the effect of depression on the sufferer’s immediate family has, surprisingly, escaped such scrutiny.

“Every time my husband went to therapy, he’d come back so drained — he’d be completely zoned out for the next two days.”

Yet if one’s spouse is moody and nonfunctional, unable to hold down a job or attend his regular shiurim, there’s sure to be a trickledown effect on the healthier member of the couple. Even for a parent or child, watching one’s flesh and blood become anxious, withdrawn, and despondent can be devastating. Is it possible to support a loved one in crisis without being affected by his or her emotional landscape? First, it’s important to understand what depression is — and what it isn’t. “Depression isn’t a temporary low mood, which we all have at times, but a biological event that affects thoughts, feelings, and behaviors,” says Dr. Barbara Unger, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Denver and associate professor at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. “It can be triggered by a stressful event — such as the death of someone meaningful, a serious illness, the loss of a job, financial reversal, divorce, or natural disasters — or it can be due to the combination of a series of events.”

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