Why I Talked to My Son About Depression

I recently had “the talk” with my son. No, not that talk (although I have had that discussion many times with him). I mean the talk about mental illness — and my mental illness to be exact. It went quite well actually, beyond whatever expectations I had for the encounter. He was attentive and seemed to understand what I was telling him — at least the best a 12-year-old can understand. But then again, why would it have gone any differently? And why was I more apprehensive about this talk than any other I’ve had with him? Is it possible I worried about the stigma of mental illness and the ever-so-familiar silent judgment from my own son? Probably, though it pains my fatherly heart to think so.

My father wrestles with depression. His depression manifests itself mostly in feelings of worthlessness, guilt and shame. And his father struggled with depression as well, though as children growing up we just thought he liked to take long walks by himself or be alone for hours tinkering in his workshop. It’s only been recent that these generational challenges have been discussed — somewhat openly, yet guardedly, as though it’s the big family secret no one is willing to admit to. I don’t know how far back our family tree this predisposition to depression runs, but three generations worth of evidence suggests my own son will likely deal with it as well. So I decided two things have to happen:

One, I have to be the chain-breaker.

Previous generations avoided talking about — and even giving full credence to — mental illness. Depression was a character flaw, a nuisance; merely one of life’s obstacles that must be overcome by hard work, prayer and perseverance. To admit to having a mental illness was to admit to weakness. “Life is hard, so just work harder” seemed to be their mantra. It is only in recent years that finally, finally, people are beginning to view mental illness differently. I believe our generation has the opportunity to finally break the chain of stigma; to end the silence and embarrassment surrounding mental illness; to bring enlightenment, understanding and acceptance to a world previously paralyzed by ignorance and fear. And this transformation has to begin in our own families. I will not allow the silence of my father, and his father, to be perpetuated any further. I will not carry on the family façade of so-called stoicism in the face of real and difficult mental challenges. I will not sit back and watch my children struggle the same way I struggled. I will shatter this link of the chain and not allow it to be perpetuated any further.

Two, I have to prepare my son.

Chances are very good that at some point, probably within the next 3-5 years, he’s going to start noticing signs of depression in his life. Like me, he’s going to start feeling the weight, the darkness, the numbness and the pain that accompanies it. Like me, he’s going to doubt his worth and struggle to find his place in the world. But unlike me, he’s going to be prepared. He will know that what he’s feeling are the same feelings his dad feels. He will know he’s not “crazy,” or different and certainly not alone. I hope he will feel comfortable talking with me about it. Depression feeds off isolation and containment. Trying to hold it inside only makes it grow stronger. Eventually, after years of suppression, it can become so deeply-rooted, so solidly entrenched, so massive and so black it is nearly impossible to extract yourself from it. Believe me, I know. And you can bet I will do everything in my power to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to him.

I will not allow my son’s identity to be interlinked with any form of mental illness. I will not allow his past to be held against him, nor his future to be held captive, by depression. I will not stand by while his self-worth and confidence are beaten down. Of course, there is only so much I can do — I can’t live his life for him. But, as his father, I am committed to doing everything I possibly can to prepare him for, and help him through, whatever may come.

So we talked and will continue to talk. Mental health will be an open topic for discussion in my family. No taboos, no stigmas, no judging. Mine will be a family where these challenges are met with understanding, openness, acceptance and unconditional love. This is the legacy I hope desperately to pass on to my son – a new link in our family chain.

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Thinkstock photo via Olga Lyubkina

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