How Depression Can Impact Your Family

postpartum depression

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz 

Depression is a complex condition that affects individuals in a variety of ways, but people who have the condition aren’t the only ones who hurt. Family members are also affected when someone they love has depression.

Because depression is one of the most common types of mental illness, it is highly likely that you have some type of direct experience with the condition. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 17.3 million adults in the U.S. report symptoms of at least one depressive episode per year.

This means most people are close to someone who has experienced depression at some point during their lives. Unlike some other illnesses, depression isn’t always something you can easily spot. Unless they are willing to talk about how they are feeling, you may not even be able to tell that a loved one is depressed unless you are familiar with some of the common symptoms of the condition.

Even if other family members are not aware of a loved one's depression, it doesn’t mean that their symptoms don’t have an impact. Parental depression, for example, may have a particularly profound impact on children.

Subtle Symptoms of Depression

The symptoms of depression often show up in a person's life in subtle ways. Signs that a person may be experiencing depression can include:

  • A messy room
  • Unwashed clothes
  • Skipping meals
  • Canceling plans
  • Spending all day in bed

Unfortunately, these symptoms are also easy to misinterpret. For loved ones, such behaviors can seem bewildering or even aggravating.

Friends might wonder why you’re suddenly avoiding them. Your spouse might get angry that you’re not doing your share around the house. Your children might be frustrated that you don’t have the energy to play with them.

This is why depression is often referred to as an invisible illness. It’s not something that someone can see just by looking at you. Unless you tell others what you are feeling and thinking, they may be left to infer meaning from your behavior. People aren’t always aware of the many symptoms that may be the result of depression.

And while you might worry about how your depression is affecting your family, your symptoms make it that much harder to get the help you need. Guilt and shame, for example, are also common symptoms of depression. Feeling that you are somehow disappointing the people you love can make those feelings worse.

Caregiver Burdens

Family members may also experience a sense of guilt about their loved ones' depression. Because they often take on a caretaker role, it’s common for friends and family to feel that there is something they should be able to do to “fix” the problem.

In other cases, family members may worry that there is something they did to cause the depression in the first place. But it’s important to remember that depression doesn’t have a single cause.

Instead, it’s influenced by a variety of factors including genetics, biology, and environment. There may be things family members can do to help, but they alone aren’t responsible for causing or fixing it.

A 2016 study published in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing found that relatives of people with severe depression also experienced significant burdens associated with their loved one's illness.

In addition to often feeling that their insights and knowledge were ignored by health professionals, family members of depressed patients were also more likely to become ill themselves. They faced an increased risk for:

  • Burnout
  • Exhaustion
  • Depression
  • Psychological distress

Family members also commonly experience feelings of fear and anxiety about their loved one's depression. Feelings of powerlessness are also common. Caregivers and others in the household may also feel angry or irritated, which can then lead to feelings of guilt and shame for getting upset with their depressed relative.

How family members respond to depression can have an impact on treatment outcomes. For example, research has found that hostile, critical, and even well-intentioned help often increases depressive symptoms in both healthy and depressed older adults.

Impact on Family Life

Depression makes it difficult for people to find the energy and motivation to manage many aspects of daily living. Sometimes just getting out of bed is a challenge, so things like doing laundry, cooking, and driving to appointments can be overwhelming.

This can obviously have an impact on other members of the household. Some of the effects:

  • Other members of your family may try to help out by taking over duties that you are struggling with. 
  • Tasks may end up getting displaced on to children.
  • Some things may simply not get done, which can generate even more stress and dysfunction.

In some cases, members of your family may not fully understand what you are going through. While they may see the effects of your symptoms, it may be difficult for them to understand what is causing those symptoms.

Symptoms of irritability can lead to arguments with other people in the family. This can add to conflicts and misunderstandings in the household.

Sometimes family members can become resentful if they feel like they are doing too much. In other cases, they may feel guilty that they are not doing enough to help.

Disruption to Relationships

Symptoms of depression can sometimes be hard to interpret. Even people who have depression often would say that they don’t feel depressed. But that doesn’t mean that their symptoms aren’t leaving a mark on their relationships.

Symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, and social withdrawal are easy to misinterpret. Difficulties recognizing depressive symptoms can also lead to conflicts in relationships.

For example, your partner might interpret social withdrawal as inattentiveness or a lack of interest. Others may interpret symptoms of irritability and low mood as anger directed specifically at them.

People with depression may: 

  • Sleep too much
  • Sleep too little
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Lose interest 
  • Have a short temper
  • Lack the energy to do anything
  • Stop enjoying things they used to love

This cannot only damage their relationships, it can also lead to further isolation for the individual who has depression. Because people don’t understand what is really causing the behaviors they’re seeing, they may pull away from the person.

How Parental Depression Affects Children

There is also evidence that growing up with a parent or caregiver who has depression can take a toll on a child’s mental health and well-being. The condition can influence many different aspects of parenting, including how caregivers interact with their kids.

Depressed parents may interact with their kids less or in more negative ways. For example, they may be more critical of their children or may be less likely to respond to their children's needs.

The social isolation that is also characteristic of depression can also extend its effects to kids, decreasing a child's contact with supportive people outside of the family. Some research suggests that having a parent with depression increases a child’s risk of later developing depression themselves. Research has found that:

  • Infants with depressed mothers may cry more frequently or at a greater intensity.
  • Children with depressed parents may have more behavioral problems.
  • Kids with depressed parents are more likely to show signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Children with depressed parents are also more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders.

Parental depression may also contribute to higher substance-abuse rates among adolescents, poorer social relationships, and worse school performance.

The high degree of stigma attached to mental illness means that many parents don’t get the help they need. The judgments society makes about mental illness mean parents don’t want to admit that they are struggling. The pressure to be perfect also means that people often don’t want to acknowledge that they are depressed.

What You Can Do

There are steps you can take that can ease some of the effects of depression on your family. 

Talk to Your Doctor

The most important thing you can do is to start the treatment process by talking to your doctor. Even if you might not feel like getting help for yourself, do it for your loved ones.

Your doctor can assess your symptoms, diagnose your condition, recommend treatment options, or refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation and treatment. Effective treatments are available and often include medications, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

Focus on Family Well-Being

Even if only one person in the family has depression, It is important to think about the entire family‘s well-being as a whole. Watch for signs that other members of the family might need help so that intervention can take place early. You may find it helpful to consider family therapy as an option.

It's also important to be aware that depression can distort your perceptions of how your depression is affecting your family. It might not seem like your symptoms are hurting others, but they may feel differently.

Find Support

Depression can be an isolating illness that often leads people to withdraw from friends, family, and loved ones. But research suggests social support can be an important part of recovery from depression.

Having other people in your life who can give support, whether it’s a good friend or counselor, can make it easier to cope with your symptoms and ease the potential strain on your family.

It’s important to remember that while depression can take a toll on others in your life, your family can also be an important source of care, comfort, and support. They often act as caregivers, can be instrumental in spotting signs of serious problems, and contribute to the overall environment that may aid in your recovery.

How Family Members Can Help

If someone in your family has depression, there are also things that you can do. This can help the person who has depression and minimize the negative impacts on your family as a whole.

Learn More About Depression 

Gaining an understanding of the symptoms, causes, and treatments for depression can give you a better idea of what your loved one is dealing with. Sometimes well-meaning family members might suggest that their loved one should just “snap out of it” without understanding the complex forces that cause depression. 

Knowing more about the illness can help family members respond in ways that are more helpful and empathetic. Work to educate yourself and your family about depression and enlist their help in your recovery. 

Research has also shown that family attitudes toward treatment can also play a role in recovery outcomes. People with family members who have a positive attitude toward antidepressants, for example, may be more likely to stick to their medication regimen.

Take Care of Yourself

Sometimes when people take on a caretaker role, they begin to neglect their own well-being. It’s important to remember, however, that in order to care for your family member you need to first take care of yourself.

  • Make sure you’re practicing good self-care including getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy, and exercising regularly.
  • Social support is also critical, so make sure that you are reaching out to your other family members and friends.
  • Talking to a mental health professional can also help.

Enlist Help

If you are a caregiver, one important step you can take is to create a network of people who can offer social and emotional support. This might involve joining a support group, talking to a counselor, engaging in spiritual practice, and having friends who can support you while you give support to your loved one with depression.

A Word From Verywell

Depression places a burden on both individuals and families. It disrupts daily routines, creates conflicts in relationships, and often isolates people from the support and help that they need.

The effects of parental depression on children can be particularly profound. Because of this, seeking treatment for your depression can not only help you feel better—it can benefit your whole family as well.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.