There is nothing more rewarding for parents than bringing home an adorable new baby. Couples look forward to the exciting role of parents as they watch their child take their first steps, say their first word and fill their lives with pride as school plays, sporting activities and graduation ceremonies take place.
That being said, parenthood can also be exhausting.
The weight and responsibility of raising children at any age can be emotionally, physically, and financially draining for parents, even when a child is healthy.
But what if a child is not?
What does stress look like for parents raising a child with a chronic illness? Can the added stress of a child’s medical and developmental needs cause silent depression?
In a word: “Yes”.
Parents raising children with special needs have additional fears and worries that weigh heavily on every aspect of their lives.
Seven reasons why silent depression is often unnamed and unaddressed
1. They often fear that their child will fight and experience deep feelings of rejection from those who exclude them.
This happens when others are unable to see beyond the challenge of getting to know the person with the disability. Unfortunately, this is a far too common event that most parents of special needs children face more often than you can imagine.
In addition to dealing with worries and fears, parents also have additional responsibilities beyond what is normally expected of most parents. Parents of children with special needs may need to feed, bathe, communicate and/or transport their child anywhere, regardless of the child’s (or adult’s) age.
2. They may spend hours on the phone with insurance companies or at doctor and therapy appointments to support and advocate for their child’s care.
Parents in this situation tend to experience years of chronic stress, especially if they are caring for their child throughout adulthood. Exposure to this type of stress can lead to a silent depression that is ignored for a very long time.
Depriving parents of their joy and vitality. With all their awareness of the medical help and support available, the question remains why parents experiencing this type of depression choose not to seek help for themselves?
3. You go to great lengths to appear happy, content, productive, and in control.
Parents expend a tremendous amount of energy trying to stay positive. Over time, they habitually learn to hide the feelings of depression, even from themselves. Parents who believe it is their responsibility to keep everyone positive and optimistic learn to hide feelings of sadness, helplessness, and exhaustion.
Over time, hiding vulnerabilities becomes a habit, and feelings of depression are often pushed aside and unaddressed.
4. They attribute symptoms of depression to irregular schedules and lack of sleep.
Caring for a child with special needs often requires that the schedule become erratic and spontaneous. Parents often stay up all night and skip meals. The overwhelming schedule prevents one from fully attending to the needs of exercise, nutrition, and self-care.
The continuous cycle of fatigue, poor nutrition, and anxiety can worsen or even cause depression symptoms. In this case, depressed people remain silent because they don’t see the symptoms as related to their mental health, but rather attribute them to schedule and sleep irregularities.
5. They can attribute symptoms of depression to concerns about their child’s illness.
Parents who are understandably sad, worried, and anxious may relate these feelings to how they feel about their child’s illness or developmental delay. Parents also worry about the stigma of their child’s illness and how that stigma may contribute to their child’s rejection. Worries and fears often overshadow the realization that they may also be feeling down and depressed.
6. You may not recognize “not so obvious” symptoms.
Silent depression isn’t always obvious. Symptoms can take the form of negative thinking, irritability, pessimism, loss of concentration, poor health, use of mood-altering substances, and disinterest in previously enjoyable activities.
Parents often associate “not-so-obvious” symptoms with the non-stop routines of caring, rather than with silent depression. They hide behind typical measurements of depression such as “Have these symptoms lasted more than two weeks?” This question is on the list of diagnostic criteria for measuring the duration of depressive symptoms.
For parents who have cared for a child with a chronic condition, such as epilepsy, leukemia, autism, or another mental illness, the answer to this question is almost always yes. For these parents, a two-week measurement does not reflect the pattern of symptoms experienced or the coping skills learned in the process.
Silent depression is often hidden behind clinical measurements used for people not caring for a chronically ill child. Without looking beyond two weeks and into the chronic patterns of social, emotional, and behavioral changes, silent depression is often overlooked by both parents and a psychiatrist or doctor.
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7. They worry about their child’s future in terms of acceptance and ability to live independently.
Parents often worry about the future even though they cannot control aspects of what comes next for their child. They also worry about how their child will cope in the future.
How will your child experience a chronic illness? Will they stay positive and resilient? Will they be happy and connected to family and friends, or isolated?
Worrying about what you can’t control can often worsen the symptoms of anxiety and silent depression.
If you or someone you love is struggling with balancing life and caring responsibilities for someone else, please reach out to a group or someone. Get support. Learn from other parents who understand your journey.
Nancy Mussarra is a clinical psychologist and published author. She shares her clinical expertise in developmental disorders and mental health issues through her workshops, books, and consultations.