How Depression Impacts Family Members

Living with depression, or having a family member who has depression, is not easy. There are various ways that depression impacts family members. These factors differ by the individual family dynamic, as well as the role the person with depression plays in the family.

Key takeaways:
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    Depression can change the way a person functions.
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    If a person with depression begins to act differently toward you, it is not personal. They are simply suffering internally, and that can cause them to socially isolate or push others away.
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    Depression can become lethal at its worst, so it’s important to seek help for your loved one and/or yourself if these symptoms persist.
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    Depression symptoms should be cause for concern if they become extreme or last for an extended period.

When a family member begins to experience symptoms of a mood disorder (or mental health disorder) such as depression, it can cause feelings of loss among family members — like they are mourning the loss of the loved one they once knew. Depression can have far-reaching impacts on a person’s mood, personality, level of social and personal interests, work or school performance, eating and sleeping habits, and much more. This can cause family members to no longer feel close or connected to their loved one, as those with depression often self-isolate or push those closest to them away.

Recognizing the signs of depression

Sometimes when family members are close, they can be blinded to the signs and symptoms of depression. They don't realize the changes they see in their loved ones as signs of a mental health issue. As a result, family members often feel they might have done something wrong or that the person is reacting to something that happened in their life. While depression can certainly follow life events and circumstances, persistent depression signs and symptoms should be cause for concern. It's even more important to take action if the symptoms do not go away or recur repeatedly.

There are various types of depression, and their diagnostic criteria vary based on type, duration, and symptoms. For example, when a person loses a loved one or breaks up with a significant other, these situations can cause symptoms of depression, but that is completely normal. This is often diagnosed as an adjustment disorder. During this period, the person learns to navigate life again after learning to overcome a significant upset or loss.

Adjustment disorder symptoms of depression, however, tend to go away after three months. So, if your family member is experiencing sadness and distress for a more extended period, this should be cause for concern. An imbalance of neurotransmitters, the chemicals in the brain and gut responsible for our moods, are not the cause of every case. Nevertheless, it’s still important to seek professional care should the symptoms persist. There are times when these issues are rooted in medical conditions as well, so it’s always important to see your primary care physician, therapist, and psychiatrist in tandem to rule out any medical conditions.

Living with a family member with depression

Living with a family member with depression, be it a parent, sibling, or offspring, can be stressful, draining, and volatile for all involved. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, a person may become unable to function in daily activities. They may require support from family and friends or a caregiver. They may also require several appointments with their therapist, psychiatrist, and primary care physician each month.

Initially, various medications may be prescribed to someone with depression. As people react differently to medications, it can take some time to find the right combination. In fact, for up to 30% of people with depression, anti-depressants do not alleviate their symptoms. Many people with depression take various types of anti-depressants before they find one that works without harsh side effects. This can be frustrating for the person and their family. However, according to research, the most effective way to relieve symptoms is through the combination of medication and therapy.

The stress of having a family member with depression

Depression is a mental health disorder that can threaten the life of a loved one. Unfortunately, not everyone can rise above their symptoms and find joy again. When depression is at its worst, it can cause someone to lose their will to live and lead to suicidal thoughts or actions in an attempt to end their constant suffering. This can cause stress and anxiety for their family. It's also quite common for those with depression to struggle with a lack of appetite and sleep when the depression is melancholic, or they may overeat and oversleep if it is atypical. Even getting out of bed each day can be a struggle. Depression can make the simplest of tasks, such as self-care and hygiene, very daunting for a person. They may find it difficult to clean up after themselves or attend to household chores. This places more responsibility on family members as well. There is also a link between symptoms of depression with substance use and abuse. This is often a person’s attempt to self-medicate to feel better. Unfortunately, this can cause an imbalance in neurotransmitters and exacerbate depression symptoms. When this happens, it can create much fear and worry in family members as they may not know what is happening to their loved ones.

When families try to help

Not everyone understands depression or knows what it feels like, so they may struggle with understanding what is happening with their loved ones. They may go to great lengths to try to cheer up their loved one, but if that fails, they can become disheartened and feel defeated. Some may take their loved one's behavior changes personally and may feel as though they need support for what they are going through as well. This is a valid concern. Many family members of those experiencing a mental health disorder do seek therapy or support to help them navigate the difficulties that come with having a depressed family member. Organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are dedicated to educating and supporting those with mental health disorder and their family members, as well.

Is depression contagious?

While depression doesn't spread from one person to another, like the flu, a person with depression symptoms may unintentionally bring down the mood of those around them. This is not their fault. Researchers discovered a correlation between depression and genetics. Therefore, there's an increased likelihood of depression if other family members have a history of mental health disorders. Other factors can increase the probability of developing depression, such as:

  • Bullying.
  • Abuse.
  • Neglect.
  • Poor diet.
  • Lack of exercise.
  • Weather — for cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
  • An attachment injury from childhood.
  • The loss of a loved one.
  • Any sort of traumatic experience.
  • A physical loss or medical condition.
  • Substance use or abuse.
  • Lack of resiliency.

If you or someone in your family is or may be experiencing, symptoms of depression, it’s important to seek help right away. There are a variety of resources available, and many are at little to no cost for those who require financial assistance to combat the symptoms. Depression isn’t a death sentence. Recovery or remission is possible, and the sooner you seek help, the sooner you may experience the light at the end of the tunnel.


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