Since I was 14, I have had mental-health issues – from anorexia to depression and bulimia. I’m now 35. Having pursued various routes treatment-wise, I now feel relatively well-equipped to deal with my own problems, but what has started to concern me is my son, who is five.
Without wishing to sound dramatic, I feel he has inherited this “curse of the black dog” and I’m not sure of the best way to deal with it – ridiculous, I know, with my 20-plus years of experience. He’s a very sensitive boy and gets upset easily. I know that the important thing is not to dismiss his worries and periods of sadness, and I do try to explain that sometimes we feel low for no reason, and that’s OK (I know from my experience that being told to “snap out of it” or asked, “What have you got to be sad about? There are people far worse off than you” does the opposite of help), but I wonder if this is enough.
I’m not suggesting he should try medication, but is it something I should mention to a doctor? To his teachers? Should I seek a counsellor? I don’t want to make a big deal out of this but, at the same time, I wonder whether, if my issues had been treated earlier, my later life would not have been so hard, and I don’t want to miss that kind of opportunity with my son. My husband doesn’t think it is anything to act on, but as he has never had mental-health problems, I’m more inclined to trust my instincts on this.
D, via email
The causes of depression are multi-factorial and some are genetic. So your son may well grow up to have depression. Or he may not. We just don’t know yet. Happy, buoyant children can go on to develop depression, too.
It is common to transfer our own experiences on to our children or to want to save the child we once were. None of this should be seen as me brushing aside how you feel. This is why I have shown your letter to Dr John Morgan (rcpsych.ac.uk), a consultant psychiatrist and an expert in depression and eating disorders.
“A child’s early temperament does give signs of later predisposition to depression, but at present all you can see is a sensitive, reflective, emotional child. These can be strengths as well as challenges and, if channelled in the right direction, make for a self-aware, compassionate young man.”
Morgan adds: “At this stage, one would not want to medicalise his experiences or seek to change his temperament, but rather to encourage his ability to manage what is likely to be a life-long predisposition, if true. However, there is also the risk of superimposing your own past experiences on the situation.”
What you say is apt – about not wanting to block how your son feels – but you also need to be careful not to send messages that his temperament is in some way “not OK” – that it needs looking at, which he may read as “needs changing”. There is no shame or embarrassment in strong emotions. You know this, I can see, but by thinking that his behaviour needs intervention at this stage, you may be sending him the message that it needs correction.
“At this point,” Morgan says, “one would not look to a doctor, a counsellor or a teacher, but rather to be confident as his mother that you are able to give him space to talk, to encourage his expression of emotion, both negative and positive, and to develop strategies to manage these feelings, such as physical activity and creative expression. You have said you have 20-plus years of experience and are relatively well-equipped, so who could be more expert than yourself in channelling such emotion as a force for good rather than self-defeat?”
Your fear is that because your son is sensitive, he will become depressed. But as Morgan points out, it is not a given; these are characteristics that can also give rise to great creativity.
“A secret of a happy life,” says Morgan, “is to be aware of your own characteristics; to channel them into a positive experience. You can’t change your personality, but knowledge of it can help you to operate in a way that gives you happiness.”
As you have learned, depression is a lifelong illness that you have to learn to manage yourself, and not rely on someone outside of yourself to fix. Helping your son to understand himself and what makes him tick, helping him to put his emotions into words or creative behaviour, rather than bottling them up or channelling them into destructive behaviour, allowing his low mood to be spoken of calmly and without fear of it frightening the adults, will go a long way to helping him have a happy life.
This was first published in the Guardian Family section on 11th October 2013.