How Depression Strengthened My Relationship With My Son

black father comforting son

Men are statistically less likely than women to seek help for mental health and to celebrate Men’s Health Week we’re highlighting issues specifically related to men and their mental health.  

It was my worst fear. I missed the opportunity to help my 15-year-old old son when he most needed me.

In 2015 I faced the worst depression of my life. It felt like I was in a dark and bottomless pit. I felt distant from myself and my family. Days went by and my most significant family interaction was sitting silently at the dinner table with my hoodie pulled over my head.

One of the oaths I swore to myself when I was younger was that I would use the lessons from my early experiences with depression to make life better for my kids. At the same time I was facing my depression, however, my son faced his own depression as a result of being bullied at school.

Thinking about that season of my life, I wish now that I had been able to think a little more clearly. Maybe I could have picked up on his signs and supported him? Maybe he would have had an easier time if we had talked more?

Part of me feels as though I failed my son. I missed helping him because I was lost within my own depression.

When you are a parent who lives with a mental illness, it’s a trap to blame yourself if your child struggles with a mental illness or addiction. Your mind will tell you it is your fault, that your genetics caused the situation.

Research confirms that this is true, in part. A Stanford School of Medicine review finds that:

“If someone has a parent or sibling with major depression, that person probably has a 2 or 3 times greater risk of developing depression compared with the average person (or around 20-30% instead of 10%).”

What we need to remember is that parents also contribute to their children’s positive mental health when we:

  • Listen and provide support
  • Provide a stable, structured home with healthy values
  • Teach healthy coping approaches and model being resilient
  • Reinforce the importance of school
  • Highlight opportunities for growth and positive challenge
  • Connect ourselves and our families to important values, passions, or to faith or culture

As I moved through my depression and began to feel a little better, I realized my son needed help. I arranged for a counselor and drove him to his appointments.
As he was working on his own depression, I struggled to decide whether to tell him about my experience. Would it be a form of support or a burden for him?

When you live with mental health conditions, one of the challenges you will face is how much you should share with your children. If you share too much, you fear you may over-burden them. On the other hand, telling your story can make your kids more aware of their own mood states and they may be more comfortable asking for help.

Both of my children were adolescents, and they could see the signs of my illness every day. It was an easy decision to tell them what I was facing.

Writer and creativity coach Ryan Hall grew up with parents who both lived with addiction and mental illness. He thinks that rather than it being a deficit, a parent’s mental illness and addiction can be an opportunity.

“Your youth can see that while you may go through a rough time in your life, you don’t let it defeat you,” Hall said. “And if you model vulnerability to your children, I believe it can really support kids and young adults in their own battles against their own demons.”

When parents takes steps to help themselves, they create a positive legacy for their kids. My depression may have made me initially less emotionally available, but it was still an experience I shared with my son.

Sharing depression has made us closer because we have faced the same struggles. We now have a common language. He says it has made him more comfortable asking for help and that he understands me more.

Growing up, I felt a remarkable disconnect from my father, and one of the things I determined to do was have a better relationship with my children. I never imagined it would come through our common experience with depression.

Writer and psychiatry lecturer Steve Colori has a unique story about overcoming the negative effects of schizoaffective disorder. He reflects that his parent’s vulnerability would have prompted him to be more ready to seek help.

“I had a feeling that I had to be perfect and I wasn’t accustomed to having parents admit their weaknesses and/or faults,” Colori said. “If they would have done so, I think it would have left a forum for me to also do so and possibly seek help in therapy.”

By opening up about my depression, I have encouraged my son to seek help when he needs it. As a father perhaps that is one of the greatest gifts I can offer.

Published by

Sean Swaby

Addiction Counselor and Mental Health Blogger