Mental health is getting more attention than ever before, but there remains a stigma attached to the name. Perhaps we can try to be more empathetic, but no matter how hard we try there will always be a barrier to our understanding of the things we can’t see. We might acknowledge the fact that a man with crippling depression needs a hand up just like a man with a broken leg but without an obvious way to step in and help our compassion is limited to a simple verbal acknowledgement.
“That must be hard”
“I’m here for you if you need me”
“You’ll be OK — just keep your head up”
“Just man up — you’ve not got anything to be depressed about”
If you’ve ever struggled with depression you’ve probably heard all of the above.
Mental illness is so personal and so deeply entrenched as a muted discourse that it is still something that we struggle to deal with constructively. If your friend is going through physio it’s pretty easy to accompany them to the gym or pool. But if your friend is trying to get back off their feet from depression then what do you offer? There’s no template, there seems to be no obvious solution.
The Office for National Statistics have reported that 17.8% of the population exhibit some signs of depression or anxiety. That’s close to 1 in 5 people. Imagine that 1 in 5 of the people you work with, play sport with, cross in the street are somewhere on the spectrum of depression or anxiety. That is a widespread problem. Something bordering on an epidemic. And the problems aren’t limited to the minds of the sufferers.
As a parent and as a man who has struggled with anxiety and depression my worries are less concerned with my own wellbeing and more to do with the impact my mental state may have on my children. A major difference between physical and mental health problems is that mental illnesses have non-hereditary ways of becoming intergenerational. What this really means is that without the necessary systems and structures to support sufferers, their problems will get passed on to their children.
Young children are basically big sponges. Noisy, messy, hilarious sponges. But just as sponges don’t discriminate about the kind of dirt and liquid they soak up, neither do children distinguish between constructive and destructive behaviors. They simply learn it. Although many parents convince themselves that their children only imitate their positive traits, the truth is probably that they are being somewhat delusional.
Yes, your children probably do see you reading before bed and this is likely to have influenced their love of stories, but they also hear you shouting at your partner and pick up on the disdain you show to people from a lower social standing. They soak it all up. Now I’m not saying children are simply clones who imitate everything but they do see it and it all becomes a part of the lens they view the world through.
Likewise, there is evidence to show that depression can carry through the generations when children are exposed to the parent’s problems.
Perhaps most notably, there is a body of research that suggests depressed mothers are less likely to bond with their infant, less sensitive to the baby’s needs and more likely to show inconsistencies to their baby’s behavior. Subsequently, their babies appear less happy, more isolated and can often be difficult to comfort. Right from the get go the mental health of parents links directly into the wellbeing of the child.
Of course, to affect the development path of a child is to change the places we lead them. Children raised with this insecurity are more likely to suffer from a whole host of problems. They are at risk of labelling themselves as unlovable and lacking any sense of self worth. As a result, they increase the likelihood that they too will suffer from depression.
Depression can be debilitating. It can take away the love of life, it can remove faith in the future and it can drain a person’s desire to get up in the morning and exist. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be cured.
Something I think is lacking in society is a template to help, a way for friends and neighbours to reach out constructively and take people suffering on a road back to their fully formed and functional selves. I have heard it said of that depressed friends are “just going through some personal stuff” and will “get in touch when they’re ready” but that doesn’t seem proactive or productive. You wouldn’t leave your friend with broken legs in bed and say he can come and walk to me when he gets back on his feet — you’d go and sit with him to help sooth the pain.
Although medication and counselling have shown to have a positive impact there needs to be more done on a community level. There needs to be an understanding of the conversations we can have and the actions we can take to help our friends and family members to get back on their feet. Without that ability to help each other restore order in our lives these statistics will only get worse and we run the risk of letting depression become an intergenerational illness.
This year I’ll be working on my mental health — not just for me but for my daughter’s future.
Previously published on medium
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