Depression: When Family Lets You Down

Medical Reviewer

Some hard truths can be learned during depression and these can affect the whole family. For the person affected by depression a common emotion is guilt. The depressed person often feels bad because the family relies on them: perhaps they're the breadwinner, or the one who has provided most of the childcare and who has made the home a good place to be. But because of their depression, a previously stable life has unraveled. During the worst days it’s too hard for them to think straight, but sometimes they can experience a growing awareness that the people they’ve given most to, and done the most for, seem to be treating them badly just when they are at their lowest point.

What’s going on?

Family dynamics

No two families are alike but the way a family is organized may help to explain why depression can affect some people disproportionately. Depression affects men and women equally, but for the purpose of this article let’s focus on Robert. Robert is the breadwinner of the family and a man who works all hours to maintain a certain lifestyle. His income supports the family, pays for the vacations, the cars, the house and so on. The desirable lifestyle and the need to impress stretches him thin. He increasingly feels he’s not coping  but he won’t ask for help. Then one day it all catches up and, bang! He’s stopped in his tracks by depression.

We could argue that Robert is the architect of his own misfortune. Then again, others in the family have perhaps unwittingly colluded to bring things to a head. Whatever the reasons, all those pressure points like the must-have purchases and his attempts to live "the dream" have finally taken their toll. To his surprise, Robert finds concerns about his welfare beginning to evaporate. Depression?, the family asks. What is there to be depressed about? What about the bills to be paid? How long is this going to last? Can’t he see everyone relies on him?

A matter of perspective

Robert feels even more upset. All the years of work he’s put in seem to count for nothing. Where’s the sympathy and support? Why is his family so angry and disappointed when he's the one who is suffering?

Well, it’s all a matter of perspective and people do tend to organize their perceptions in ways that suit themselves. As much as Robert may feel his family is unsympathetic, the sad fact is he is just as culpable. Robert assumed the role of breadwinner. No doubt he never imagined a time when his world would collapse around him, but then the future is always unpredictable.

But what about the family? Well, the immediate issue for Robert’s family is the sudden and unexpected change in income and lifestyle, because his illness now affects them all. With family finances already stretched, things can’t continue as before. Robert’s depression has brought their vulnerabilities into sharp focus.

Adapting to change

We all find it hard to adapt to changes that affect us negatively. Blaming someone for a disease outside of his or her control is hurtful and unhelpful. Fortunately, depression is usually something that improves with time and treatment, so this is the time for a family to work together. What is required is a shifting of priorities and a good hard look at what needs to change if the family is to avoid similar problems in the future.

In the case of Robert, he also needs to adapt to changing circumstances. It won’t help him to point the finger and blame his spouse and family for not being there when he needed them most. As much as his illness may have shaken him to the core it has done exactly the same to his family. It may not be pretty but when people are frightened they sometimes lash out. Often the most hurtful are those who rely on us the most.

To cope with their new circumstances both Robert and his family must accept that things need to change. It will take time to adjust and some harsh words might still be exchanged along the way. However, if Robert learns to back away from his role as the sole "great provider" it offers opportunities for others in the family to step up.

Planning change takes time. It’s a process that has to adapt to circumstances as they develop. The forecast for a situation like Robert’s is entirely in the hands of the family. If he, and they, manage to adjust, a better balance will evolve. This will make the family more resilient when it comes to coping with unforeseen challenges.

See more helpful articles:

How to Give Verbal Support to Depressed Loved Ones

For Family Members: Are You an Enabler?

Powerful Lessons That Your Depression Can Teach You