In the ongoing battle for wholeness and wellness, especially where the focus has shifted during this COVID-19 pandemic to physical protection, immune defence systems and overcoming possible financial ruin, some key emotional and psychological factors may be missed in the wellness puzzle, viz.: mental health being overlooked as a result of the current focus on COVID-19 infection statistics. This is similar, perhaps, to the doctor taking proper care of the baby, but missing the mother’s severe postnatal depression. During this pandemic, the subsequent stress and, in some cases, even depression in parents negatively impacts all in the family, no matter the age of the family member.

“Depression is an illness that feeds upon itself”, said Dr William Beardslee, professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Spending most of his career studying depression in children and developing family interventions, he notes: “Very often people who are depressed don’t seek the care they need”. In 2009, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council issued a report, “Depression in Parents, Parenting and Children” that summarised a large and growing body of research on the ways that parental depression can affect how people take care of their children and how those children fare.

Apparently, about 20% of people will suffer some degree of depression within their lives – this figure is probably much higher during a pandemic. Dr Beardslee notes: “Untreated, unrecognised parental depression can lead to negative consequences for children, ranging from poor school performance, less than optimal peer relationships, more frequent visits to the emergency room and ultimately adolescent depression”.

The converse is equally true – there is plenty of evidence that when depressed parents get treatment and help with their parenting, families are much better off overall. Dr Mary Jane England, a psychiatrist and professor of health policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health and who led the Institute of Medicine Committee, notes: “Because of stigma and a lack of training of some of our primary care practitioners, we don’t pick it up”. This is unfortunate as depression damages the interactions between parents and children and disrupts family routines and rituals. Children with a depressed parent are themselves more likely to manifest symptoms of depression along with other possible psychiatric problems and behaviour issues.

Families should be asking each other the following questions:

  • How are you doing?
  • What occupies your thoughts?
  • How do you feel about the lockdown, not being able to go to school, etc.?
  • Do you have any questions about the virus that still puzzle you?
  • Are you missing your friends? Would you like me to arrange a digital play-date for you?
  • Is there anything that I can do to help?

Physical health, as well as mental health and wholeness, need to occupy our focus during this corona virus pandemic. Families can help all family members in this regard by offering support. If there are any signs of feelings of depression, seek appropriate help. Depression is an illness, too.

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