When mental illness ‘runs in the family’

I hope my son doesn’t grow up just like me.

Dad son mental illness

I had a terrifying thought the other day…

My wife was playing with our son in the lounge room:  a simple game where she would sit on one side of the room and encourage him to sit up by himself, and walk over to her (he’s only recently figured out how to walk).

Unfortunately, 9 times out of 10, he’d take one or two steps, wobble, and then fall down.

As I watched him repeat this humiliation again and again I smiled to myself and thought “He’s very determined, just like his mother”.

Then a very disturbing thought crept into my mind… “I wonder what traits he will inherit from me?”

To properly explain why this thought was so confronting we need to go back many years ago — the morning I woke up in a hospital bed confused and exhausted.

You see for many years I had struggled with depression, and the day before I had decided that enough was enough.

I was going to kill myself.

From an early age the black dog had been with me, twisting every experience, clouding my future with darkness so no hope could shine through. Whispering in my ear how every family member and every friend didn’t care about me and would barely notice if one day I vanished.

It kept me from pursuing dreams, from socialising, from asking out girls, from sticking with my studies, from keeping up with my hobbies. It wanted me alone, in bed, crying without reason.

Years of living with that hell finally built up enough for me to try to escape it.

Luckily for me my attempt on my own life wasn’t successful and after that close brush with death I finally got the help that I needed.

Medication, years of therapy, lifestyle changes, kicking the bottle, taking up swimming and hiking and my illness is now mostly under control but looking at my son’s smiling face and imagining him going through anything similar is utterly terrifying.

Unfortunately, statistics back up my fears.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 in 8 Australian men will experience depression at some point in their lifetime. The rates of depression increase for the children of depression sufferers.

So, what do I do with this information?

I cannot completely manipulate my son’s environment to ensure he is never depressed – the mental health of individuals often does not match their life situations. I cannot treat him for depression pre-emptively.

What I can do is ensure that he grows up with Depression and other mental and emotional disorders demystified.

I can ensure he knows that looking after his mental health is vital, and to build up his resiliency and coping strategies so that if he does encounter difficulties, he will be better equipped to handle them than I was.

My wife and I will ensure he knows he can always come to us for help, with anything.

Whenever I go to therapy, this will never be hidden from my son. I will find the right balance between burdening him with this knowledge and concealing it from him.

I will make sure my son knows that Depression is not weakness.

In my early days as an educator I was once sitting in a high school health class where the teacher proclaimed that instead of being depressed, students could simply soldier on and be happy.

I felt sick for the rest of the day, hoping that when some of these students inevitably experienced mental health issues they didn’t believe the cure was to ‘soldier on’.

I will make sure that my son knows that just as you don’t fix a broken leg by ignoring it, mental health needs to be treated by professionals.

My wife and I will pursue our own mental health in our son’s full view and with our son’s full knowledge.

Just like we will model healthy eating and exercise, we will model taking care of our mental health.

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