When depression is a family affair

Unemployment can bring an additional layer of stress to the family dynamic. If you are caught between family members in conflict, Mark Goulston has a strategy that will bring them together to work toward a common solution.
This is a photo of Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark Goulston, M.D.

For many people, especially men between the ages of 40 to 65, being out of work is not only depressing, but it is also often a cause of depression.

To make matters worse, this sometimes coincides with a teenager who is also depressed. Frequently the teen may demonstrate that depression by acting out with drugs, alcohol, poor grades or just being negative about everything. This attitude can be a cover-up for their being afraid that the family is falling apart under the pressure and stress of one family member’s extended unemployment.

And since depression often causes people — both spouses and children — to become sullen and withdrawn, this can cause the non-depressed spouse/parent to feel overwhelmed.

What do you do if you are that non-depressed spouse/parent?

Read this letter and then share with your depressed spouse and teenager to read it.

Dear (depressed spouse’s name) and (depressed child’s name),

We’re going through a difficult time and I know there are times and many times when either, or both of you, can’t imagine how we will get through it. 

Not knowing how we will get through it or even believing we won’t, doesn’t mean we won’t.

Something that occurred to me that you might both be feeling and if so, might be a good thing for you talk to each other. Or all of us could talk to each other about feeling disappointed, guilty and ashamed.

Regarding disappointment, I’m guessing that either or both of you are feeling at times:

  1. Disappointed in the world and what you feel it has done to you or failed to do for you. You actually may have started off angry, but after feeling and maybe venting that — and having that accomplish nothing — you may have just fallen upon feeling disappointed in or at whoever or whatever made you angry.
  2. Disappointed in the world if you’re my [husband/wife] or disappointed in us if you’re our [son/daughter] for not preparing you better to handle the setbacks, rejections or other problems you’re now facing. Again, you might have been angry at first.
  3. Disappointed in yourself if after being disappointed in the above two, you might just settle on being disappointed in you and thinking that’s it’s nobody else’s fault but your own.

Regarding guilt, I’m guessing that either or both of you have felt at times that you’re a worry or frightening me and that whether I admit it or not, that you’re a burden to me. And if you feel that way, it’s easy to at times think maybe I or the world would be better off without you.

Regarding shame, sometimes people feel ashamed that they can’t seem to do more, or you might even feel ashamed that you are so self-absorbed and can’t think of anyone other than yourself. Being so wrapped up in yourself and not caring about anyone else might cause both of you to think that maybe you don’t even deserve to be happy.

Okay already! Enough of the bad news!  

Here are some things you can do about feeling disappointed, guilty and ashamed.

Regarding disappointment, it may be because you’re feeling like you’re spinning your wheels and that whatever you’re doing is not effective and you’re not productive. 

Something you can both do and help each other to do is to think about where — specifically, in what industry — you’d like to work (for your spouse) and what kind of job you’d like to have someday (for your child). 

Next, check out what are the jobs that the industry or companies you’d like to work at are in the most critical need. Then, figure out the skills, classes, and courses that will help you qualify for those jobs. 

Finally, develop a buddy system where you’re both learning skills that will make you more hirable. By working together, you might be motivated or at least willing to do it just because the other one is also learning a new skill.

Regarding guilt. It’s true that both of you are a worry and I am sometimes afraid for you or even of what you might do.


It’s true that I might not feel that way about someone outside the family, however being in this family makes you a responsibility that I freely take on that is worrisome at times, yes, but burdensome, no!

That’s what makes this a family. 

Regarding shame, especially about feeling too self-absorbed. Come up with a place to volunteer together where you are helping people who have nothing, perhaps at a food bank or homeless shelter. 

When you do that, there is a good chance that the people you are helping will look you directly in your eyes and thank you. Doing something for these poor souls and feeling their gratitude can do a lot to counter your feeling self-absorbed and ashamed because of that. Doing good works together will make it doubly uplifting.

Not only might this approach help a depressed parent and depressed teen get through a rough time in both of their lives, but one day they will both look back at this episode and truly appreciate how doing this together made them feel closer than at any other times in their lives.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Goulston wanted to share this story about the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on the rise of depression levels and suicide in young people. He also includes other resources on how to combat this problem in your own family.

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Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

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