Depression as a Family Disease

Aug 24, 2023 | Uncategorized

“American teens are having a hard time,” wrote journalist, author, and speaker Jenny Anderson in TIME magazine earlier this month. She presented data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that “From 2008 to 2019, the rate of U.S. high school students reporting chronic feelings of sadness and hopelessness rose 65 percent from one in five to one in three.” And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

By the fall of 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the CDC reported that 42 percent of high school students, and almost 60 percent of girls, felt chronic sadness and hopelessness. A staggering quarter of teen girls had made a suicide plan

“Every indicator of mental health and psychological well-being has become more negative among teens and young adults since 2012,” wrote author and psychology professor Jean Twenge wrote in her new book Generations.

Rampant teenage use of electronic media has been blamed, as well as school shootings, social isolation, anxiety about climate change, and increasing academic pressure. A lot of the focus has been on the mental health of individual teenagers with far less focus on the relationships with their parents. 

That is a problem because “a lot of parents are in really bad shape, too,” wrote Anderson.  

According to two nationally representative surveys, about 20 percent of mothers and 15 percent of fathers reported anxiety, compared to 18 percent of teens. About 15 percent of teens reported depression, for mothers and fathers it was 16 and 10 percent respectively. That means, about one-third of teens had a parent reportedly suffering from anxiety or depression.

“Our data suggest that we would be just as right to sound the alarm about the state of parents’ mental health as about teens’ mental health,” wrote Richard Weissbourd, director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the authors of the report called Caring for the Caregivers.

“It is not surprising that parents are struggling,” Anderson wrote in the TIME article. “Inflation has made life more expensive, the job market is strong but uncertain, and the news feels like a firehose of war, wildfires, and indictments. But depressed and anxious adults who are parents of teens are faced with the double whammy of trying to manage themselves while simultaneously supporting teens.”

And the teens are more than likely to be impacted by mental health issues plaguing their parents. Regular exposure to significant mental stressors can put any family member at an elevated risk for addiction. A large number of substance use disorders (SUDs) start during the teenage years. Frequently, substance misuse is driven by frantic attempts to numb emotional pain caused by mental health issues such as trauma, depression, and anxiety.

All of this illustrates the strong relational character of mental health and substance misuse issues. Or as Anderson put it: “If we want to help teens, we need to help their parents, too.” She points out that “research shows that children of parents with untreated depression have higher rates of behavior problems, difficulty coping with stress and forming healthy relationships, academic problems, and mental illness.” 

This scenario can unleash a perfect storm: “If both parents and child are suffering, the two can set each other off, with adults lacking the energy required to focus on their child’s struggles. Anxious and depressed teens will show frustration lashing out at caregivers.”

Even if only one identified patient in the family suffers from depression, anxiety, or substance use disorder, the core family should be involved in the treatment process. Avanti Behavioral Health offers a new treatment option for teenagers at risk in the Denver area. Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) for clients between the ages of 13 and 18 in Greenwood Village provides comprehensive, holistic, family-centered, and trauma-informed care for your teen.

Avanti’s clinical director Kathy Rodriguez stresses the importance of family engagement: “In the substance use realm, most families need a lot of education on addiction and how it presents in different people. Each kid who joins our program should feel supported, not only by our staff but also by their families, especially after they transition back home.”

Family members can play an important role at any level of care, including in an IOP. Participating in family counseling as part of the treatment of the child will provide all family members with a better understanding of addiction as a disease and their optimal role in achieving recovery for their loved ones. 

Avanti developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling, focusing on multiple factors involving the existing family dynamic by examining the family unit and understanding the role of each individual family member. Ultimately, the aim is to restructure the family dynamic into something healthy, functional, and beneficial for all involved.

Our meetings are available to provide concerned family members with the tools that they need to effectively support their loved ones in the recovery process. For more information about our IOP and family programming call us at (720) 753-4030. 

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