What Depression Looks Like to a Child

When I was 7 years old, my dad had his hernia removed. I remember my parents explaining to my sister and me that he had lifted something too heavy and that he had to have an operation to make him feel better. He would need to take a little time off from work but would start to recover quickly. I didn't feel confused or scared about him feeling sick, and if I had any questions — what is a hernia? can I see your staples? does it hurt? — I felt comfortable asking them, and he felt comfortable answering.

When I was 10 years old, my dad began showing symptoms of something else. Except this time, there was no explanation. Over the next several years, he would face a major health crisis, yet there would never be a family discussion about it. I had never heard of depression, but over the next three years, it would profoundly change the course of my life.

I Watched

My dad was like too many parents who suffer in the stigma and shame that all too often surround mental illness.
Amy Marlow

First, I watched him get very tired. Instead of talking or playing with us after work or on the weekends, he slept. I watched him at dinner, sitting silently through each meal, where once he would have asked about my day or would have a discussion with my mom. Then I watched him withdraw, hanging back from family activities, or retreating to a different part of the house altogether. And I watched the sparkle go out of his beautiful blue eyes. I watched as he curled into himself — my witty, loving, engaged father becoming flat and silent.

Somewhere inside, I felt scared and confused. But I didn't know why.

By the time I was 13, I began to worry. I worked up the nerve to ask my mom what was going on. She told me he was dealing with a lot of pressure at work. He was a successful attorney in Washington, D.C., and while I knew his job was stressful, I felt that there was something bigger going on.

What’s Wrong, Dad?

So one day I walked up to him, looked him straight in the eye, and asked, "What's wrong, Dad?"

He looked startled, and so was I. This topic felt off-limits. He stammered, "I...don't feel...good." Pushing for more, I asked, "When are you going to feel better?" His eyes filled with tears. I had never seen my dad cry, and it scared me. When he stayed silent, I raced out of the room, certain that he would come after me and explain. Explain why he was crying. Explain why he was sad. Explain why he had changed. But he never did.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a helpline offering support and information about mental illness. They also offer a free family-to-family course for family and caregivers of people dealing with depression.

Three days later he was gone. On May 1, 1996, my dad died by suicide in our home, and I was the first to find him. Words cannot describe how deep and lasting the impact of that trauma has been in my life.

Later that day, my mom explained to us that he had "depression," that he was taking "antidepressants," that he had been "very sick." And although mental illness had been silently eroding his health for years, until that moment I had never heard of it.

I was like too many kids who are never told about depression. My dad was like too many parents who suffer in the stigma and shame that all too often surround mental illness. My family was like too many families who don’t know what to say to their kids about depression, so they say nothing at all.

And I get it. Mental illness is hard to talk about with other adults, let alone children. But we need to talk about it anyway.

Talking Matters

“Mental illness is hard to talk about with other adults, let alone children. But we need to talk about it anyway.
Amy Marlow

Talking about my dad’s depression would have made me less scared, not more.

Talking about his depression could have helped my dad feel less isolated, not more. 

His suicide left a trail of questions behind it. Would sharing openly have given my dad some relief? Would my knowing that he had depression have made his death any less traumatic? I'll never know. But I am certain that talking about his suicide and my own depression cause me to feel less pain, not more. So I choose to share my story, as scary and uncomfortable as it can be.

I know that conversations about mental health aren’t as easy as explaining a hernia operation. But the need is still there. The illness is still there. The scars are still there and the staples are still there. We just can’t see them.

Take it from me: The only thing scarier than talking about depression is not talking about depression at all.

Amy Marlow

Amy Marlow is the author of Blue Light Blue, where she shares her experiences a survivor of suicide loss living with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. You can follow her on Twitter @_bluelightblue_