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When Treating Depression, Entire Family Called On

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When Treating Depression, Entire Family Called On

Mental Health

When Treating Depression, Entire Family Called On

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Renee Montagne. In Your Health today, we have two stories that examine relationships involving family and friends. Later, we'll hear about how friendships form on college campuses.

Now, we turn to the family and depression. Depression often runs in families and can cast a big shadow on how a family functions. As scientists work to figure out the genetics of the illness, families and therapists are figuring out ways to cope. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Forty-six-year-old Mary Margaret Thicke(ph) works at a home improvement store in the Midwest. She started having symptoms of depression in the sixth grade, bouts of unremitting sadness, wanting to be alone, crying all the time. No one knew why. She remembers her five brothers and sisters calling her a crybaby. Finally, at the age of 32, she saw a therapist, who asked her whether anyone in her family had symptoms of depression.

Ms. MARY MARGARET THICKE (Employee, Home Improvement Store): At that point, I had looked into my family history and found that depression had been running in my family through multiple generations.

SILBERNER: For her, it was good news.

Ms. THICKE: When I learned that, it was a great relief that I now knew that it wasn't a character issue. It was a genetic predisposition, a genetic illness. And it was like a weight lifted off of me. I'm like, oh, thank God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SILBERNER: Scientists were working on the genetics of depression. They know there's a relationship, says Dr. Bill Beardslee, who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. BILL BEARDSLEE (Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School): There're going to be certain families with six, seven, eight, nine, 10 first-degree relatives that are going to be much more likely, on average, to have kids with depression than, say, a family with only a few first-degree relatives.

SILBERNER: But it takes more than genes.

Dr. BEARDSLEE: Most of the genetics that I know of is really about the intersection between genes and environment in multiple ways.

SILBERNER: Traumas like divorce, violence or poverty can act on vulnerable children. And when parents themselves have depression, that, too, creates a tough environment for kids.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, 16 million children under 18 live in households with a depressed adult. For parents with depression, says Beardsleeā€¦

Dr. BEARDSLEE: The first thing they should do is think about getting help for themselves, because depression is quite painful. As one mother said to me, depression attacks the soul. And with that level of suffering, it's very hard to do anything.

SILBERNER: Not just therapy for themselves. Beardslee's clinical research shows that family therapy can be particularly helpful. Mary Margaret Thicke has forgiven her siblings for calling her a crybaby. Some of them were later diagnosed as well. She's sure that if they had realized she had an illness, they wouldn't have put her through such a tough time.

Even if family members recognize the illness and realize that treatment is needed, it can be hard to convince a depressed person to go through with it, says Julie Totten. She's head of a group called Families for Depression Awareness.

Ms. JULIE TOTTEN (Families for Depression Awareness): Expect them to say no, in other words. And then you've got to keep working on it. Get other people involved. If someone's depressed, their first answer is going to be no, because they don't want to do anything because they're feeling so down.

SILBERNER: That happened with her older brother. She knew something was wrong. When they were in their mid-20s, her brother became moody and withdrawn. She took him to a funny movie, and he didn't laugh. She tried to get him to talk to a doctor, and he wouldn't. He eventually killed himself.

What keeps people from getting help, says Totten, is the shame and the stigma.

Ms. TOTTEN: People don't really talk about it enough. And you don't say to your neighbor, my brother's really depressed. What do you think I should do about it? You know, it's kind of more an embarrassing topic.

SILBERNER: But dealing with the depression is key to family health, says Harvard's Beardslee.

Dr. BEARDSLEE: Depression impairs the capacity to hear and understand conversation, to make reasonable decisions. It causes people to withdraw from social relationships. So unrecognized and untreated, it can be a family calamity.

SILBERNER: A calamity that doesn't necessarily have to happen.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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