March 13, 2009

Kids badly affected by parent depression

[Posted: Mon 09/03/2009 by Deborah Condon]

Children are seriously affected when a parent suffers from depression, with many taking on an enormous amount of responsibility for the ill parent and other family members, a new study has found.

A Swedish researcher followed the progress of nine families, which included 10 children and young adults aged between five and 26 and 11 parents affected by depression.

The results revealed how the family’s daily life changed and became more complicated when a parent was suffering from depression. It found that uncertainty about what was happening had an effect on the entire family on a daily basis.

In particular, depression meant that the parents became tired or exhausted, which weighed heavily on the children’s daily life. It also changed the relationship between a parent and his/her children, as they no longer communicated with each other the way that they used to.

Interplay within the families decreased and the depressed parent tended to withdraw from the family, leaving the children to feel as if they were being left to themselves.

As a result of this, ordinary daily family life became unfamiliar to the children. The family members tried to cope with the situation so that daily life could be restored to a more manageable level. However the children often ended up taking responsibility for the depressed parent, their siblings and themselves, when they noticed that the parent could not cope.

“The toughest burden of responsibility that children take on is ensuring that the depressed parent doesn’t commit suicide. So children take on an extremely heavy responsibility by monitoring and keeping an eye on the depressed parent,” explained, nurse Britt Hedman Ahlström of the University of Gothenburg.

Her research found that for children, a parent’s depression means both a sense of responsibility and feelings of loneliness The feelings of responsibility and loneliness include a striving and yearning for reciprocity with the parent, and for things to return to a state of normality.

“Even if the depression goes away for a time, the family is never entirely free from anxiety over it coming back. This means that there is a prolonged period of suffering associated with depression,” she noted.

She found that it is important for health services to be aware of these issues and to have support functions in place for the entire family, not just the person who is ill. She said it is essential to have a well-defined level of guaranteed care on how, when and from whom affected families will get support.

Psychiatric healthcare personnel should meet people suffering from depression at an early stage, and therefore have the opportunity to focus care on the whole family.

“We need a new approach within the health services, in which the focus is on the family’s own perspective when a parent is suffering from depression. It’s vital to be aware of the whole family’s needs in terms of help and support, and not just those of the person who is ill. It’s particularly important to be aware of the children’s situation,” Ms Hedman Ahlström added.

For more information on depression, see…