Despite her situation and the fact that she sought treatment, my mother subscribes to the school of thought that “you have nothing to complain about.” I often wonder how much of this was selfish, to cast herself in a better light. In any case, it isn’t true: There’s nothing wrong with voicing “complaints” and sharing emotions. I’m convinced that my mom’s reaction is why I’m careful to make sure my four-year-old daughter, Anna, knows it’s okay to cry and show a range of emotions. It’s my hope that encouraging healthy expression will prevent her from experiencing her own anxiety and/or depression down the road.
Earlier this month, a US study out of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health suggested what we’ve heard before: that parents can pass their risk of mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, on to their children. The findings show that there are three regions of the brain that are linked to hereditary mental illnesses. This discovery will hopefully lead to improved treatment options, according to the report.
When it comes to a child ending up with mental illness, I struggle with how much is genetics and how much is learned behaviour. Circumstances must certainly play into it in some way. For example, if a parent’s depression is related to her experience of poverty—and an impoverished parent is likely to raise a child under similar conditions—is the child’s depression a hereditary trait or is it related to having had the same experience as her parent?
While I love the idea of improving treatment options (which I hope includes counselling options, not just drugs), my fear is that a study like this inadvertently creates a belief that people battling depression shouldn’t have children.
I’ve written before about the difficulty of being an emotional person and exposing my daughter to that. Likewise, I want her to know the truth of our circumstances—including how I grew up—and know that I’m telling her things the right way, at the right time, and not overexposing her unnecessarily. I value my child’s happiness and her overall mental health. I carry a lot of guilt at the thought that I could be passing down my own personal struggles with anxiety and depression and creating pain for this little person I love.
At the same time, the study suggests that “anxiety can provide an evolutionary advantage because it helps an individual recognize and avoid danger.” As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m not a scientist by trade. What I do know, though, is that my own experiences—of both having and witnessing anxiety and depression—will make me more equipped to help my daughter deal with them, should she experience them herself later in life. I have no doubt that it also means it will affect me in big ways, but if big feelings create more big feelings, so be it—it seems like we’re in this together.