Depressive individuals are not always in a full blown clinical depression. The symptoms of a clinical depression are well known and include severe sadness or feelings of being empty, lack of energy, lack of enjoyment or pleasure, problems with appetite and sleeping, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, problems with concentration and thoughts of suicide or death. Depression often runs in families, yet is not clear to what extent this is transmitted genetically and to what extent parents behave in ways that cause depressive tendencies in their children.
An important factor in depressive tendencies is the experience of premature loss. Depressive individuals are understood to have suffered some early frustration or loss that was experienced as too overwhelming. The life event most associated with a person’s development of depression later in life is losing a parent before the age of 11. Children tend to emerge from an experience of premature loss with a tendency to idealize the loved person and to internalize badness. So instead of feeling: “I am angry with my father for leaving or with my mother for expecting me to function independently too early” the child internalizes the feeling: “I must be bad, that is why people leave”. These dynamics create a feeling of being bad, of having driven away a loved one (normally a parent) and of having to try very hard to prevent this from happening again. If a child takes in him/herself a sense of badness it gives a sense of control (if the badness is in me, I can change the situation and prevent this from happening again). These individuals thus believe that their source of sadness lies within themselves (their own badness). This turning against the self is a typical outcome of a childhood that has been emotionally insecure. These individuals experience early and sometimes repeated losses ranging from being weaned too early and being expected to function too independently too early; divorce; rejection; abandonment; death of a parent; various forms of separation from primary caregivers etc. Early loss is not always concrete (as with death of a loved one) it can be more emotional and internal (as with parents who pressure children to give up dependent longings and behavior before the child is ready for this). Young children do not have the mental abilities to process loss and therefore losses at a young age almost always cause some depressive dynamics.
In families where mourning losses are discouraged depressive tendencies are stronger. When parents deny grief (e.g. after divorce or death) so that loss cannot be processed, mourning does not happen and eventually takes the form of the child believing that there is something wrong with him-/herself.
The combination of early loss and critical parental attitudes increase the likelihood of depressive dynamics and a sense of badness within the child. Significant depression in a parent, particularly in a child’s early years, also increase the possibility of depression for that child (depression in a parent is often experienced by the child as a from of emotional abandonment by the parent). Children with a depressed parent feel guilty about their normal needs and demands and fear that they are bad and too needy and exhaust their parents.
People with depressive personalities fear that they are bad and that they will therefore be abandoned by others. “Depressive people are agonizingly aware of every sin they have committed, every kindness they have neglected to extend, every selfish inclination that has crossed their minds” (Nancy McWilliams, 1994, p230). They long for love and attachment. Depressive people’s anger is mostly conflicted, thus they tend to feel guilt when angered (they turn anger inward and feel they are bad).
Stressors that are experienced by patients as reflecting negatively on their self-esteem are more likely to produce depression. Children who do not feel admired, validated and affirmed by their parents struggle to develop a sense of self-esteem that protects a child against the later development of depression.
Depression is often called the common cold of mental problems because it is so widespread. Many people benefit from psychotherapy to work through losses and struggles with self-esteem. When depression is very severe medication can help alleviate the symptoms.