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Depression and the extended family – part two

The question of how to talk about depression with extended family is a big one. Earlier this week I wrote about the beginnings of my family’s journey in part one. Today’s post is the next step of my personal story.

My husband and I come from pretty different backgrounds. His parents were in their late 30’s when he and his brother were born. They were from small, rural towns, and their views of life pretty well echoed their age and their life experiences. My parents, on the other hand, were just out of college when I was born, fully caught up in the civil rights movement, and fairly “enlightened.” So communicating with the two sides of our family as depression dragged on and on was pretty much two different stories. Today I’ll focus on what we experienced with my in-laws.

We tried very hard to do some updating and educating with my husband’s parents. Explaining that depression is a true illness. Trying to erase the stigma. Working to overcome outdated and hurtful mindsets. I don’t think we ever got very far. They continued to be supportive over all the difficult years, but they never did (and still don’t) understand. For them, when a person (especially a husband and father) feels “down,” it’s his job to “get over it,” “pull himself up by his own bootstraps,” “get a job,” etc. They expressed concern, but very often these types of comments and always this attitude were evident. It got to the point where we realized we were beating our heads against a brick wall and we just gave up. When my husband didn’t get better and didn’t get better, we basically just glossed over it and stopped talking about the subject, though it was the elephant in the room.

Strangely enough, my in-laws both had personal experiences with depression. They just refused to see their own experiences in those terms. Trying to commit suicide as a teen? No depression there, just a difficult home situation. Two years out of work and miserable after a mid-life heart attack? Just a rough patch. Obviously we were fighting a losing battle in trying to get them to change their attitude toward brain illnesses.

Thankfully, my husband’s brother and his wife were a different story. There we found real support, concern, and understanding of the nature of depression. That’s where we turned when we needed a shoulder to cry on. And, down the line, that support was reciprocated when my brother-in-law was hit with severe depression. Hmmmm….notice a family pattern there? I still shake my head when people refuse to believe that depression has genetic roots.

Always throughout our journey, our goal was to be open with our family. For one thing, it was pointless to try an hide depression’s effects from the people who were closest to us. But we also felt the need to speak the truth, trying to bring something once considered “shameful” out into the light – mainly for our own benefit. Hiding would have just made it all worse.

Next time, how we discussed depression with my side of the family.



3 Responses

  1. Beautiful article. I dont know if I am convinced that the link is genetic as much as it is cultural. My grandfather was the first one of his family to become an alcoholic. All the rest of my great aunts and uncles on my Dad’s side were religious, stable people.(I am not commenting om their issues)
    But my Dad’s alcoholism was created in large part, in my opinion, by the PTSD he suffered with because of the violence of my grandfather. He passed that on to me through the same form, violence.
    I believe much of the depression in my culture is from trying to suppress the emotional pain I carry.

  2. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve been so open with both sides of your family. The more depression is talked about, the less scary it is, for those experiencing it and for their loved ones. I’m with you- it’s so unfortunate that some people have that ‘just get over the rough patch’ mentality when it’s clear it’s so much more than that. Glad you guys found loving support from your husband’s brother and his wife!

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