How to help your son through depression

Showing you care by just being there can make his world brighter.

By Yours team
From not touching a hot stove to looking both ways when crossing the road, we teach our children all sorts of things to keep themselves safe.
But as they get older, and their lives inevitably become more complex, knowing how to help can become much more of a challenge – especially for mums of young men struggling with depression young men struggling with depression.
In Australia, one in eight men will experience depression at some stage. While it’s a bit lower than the one-in-five lifetime rate for women, men are less likely to talk about mental illness, which means they may not seek treatment. Tragically, living with a form of unrecognised or untreated depression puts men at a higher risk of self-harm, according to non-profit organisation Beyondblue.
“Depression is a high risk factor for suicide and we know that from their mid-thirties to mid-fifties, a lot of men are at risk of taking their own life,”
says Beyondblue policy, research and evaluation leader Dr Stephen Carbone.
Some theories suggest men react differently to depression due to early childhood experiences and the everyday stresses of adulthood, such as career pressure and supporting a family. But there is always hope.
“The key message is to help him so he can help himself,” he adds.

Don’t be afraid to take an interest

Being able to recognise the signs of depression can help you and your son understand and manage his illness.
“Men are often taught to suppress their feelings and conform to societal expectations of being strong, stoic and capable rather than reaching out for help,” Dr Carbone explains. “As a result, very few men are willing to admit there is a problem.
“As the parent, you’re in a unique position because it’s often those closest to the depressed person who notice subtle changes that may indicate something isn’t quite right.”
While the primary symptoms of depression involve sadness, feelings of hopelessness and mood changes, you may notice your son has become more irritable or socially withdrawn.
“The more isolated he becomes, the bigger the concern,” Dr Carbone says.
Another complicating factor is that someone who is depressed may start relying on alcohol or drugs.
“People often think the substance is the problem, but there’s invariably something driving it, so look beyond what you think could be the obvious reason,” he advises. “But resist the urge to over-protect your son and bail him out of every situation.”
Other red flags include difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, not eating as much and sleeping poorly.

Start a helpful conversation

Even if you’re not sure what to say, the important thing is you let him know you’re concerned and why.
“Acknowledge that it looks like he’s going through a difficult time and ask him if he wants to talk about it. Let him know you care and want to help,” Dr Carbone says.
Showing your willingness to support your son gives him an opportunity to share his thoughts and emotions.
“If you’re not sure where to start, the Beyondblue website has lots of information about depression and how to start a conversation.”

Provide practical support

Depression can be extremely confusing for the person living with the condition and those around him. One day your son might be perfectly fine and the next he could be totally flat and listless.
“If you notice he’s becoming more ‘down in the dumps’ and not doing the things he’d normally do, ask him to talk about it rather than letting him bottle it up and feel ashamed about it,” Dr Carbone suggests.
“It’s this type of harsh self-criticism that can make men hesitant to reach out and discuss their depression.”
You may never be able to change his mindset, but knowing he has your support can make day-to-day life easier.
“Let him speak his mind and don’t feel you have to offer him a solution straight away. It’s about encouraging him to figure out how he can manage the situation himself,” he says.
“Support him in the least intrusive way. But if at any time you think there might be a risk of self-harm, it’s time to act. The easiest option is to sit with him and call a support service (see below) or take him to see his GP.”

Show respect for his partner

The mother-son bond doesn’t end when he comes of age, but it can be difficult to know how to intervene in a health crisis when you’re both adults – especially if he has a family of his own.
“As men get older they lose contact with their social network and end up relying on their spouse, who can assume the role of caregiver,” Dr Carbone says.
Reach out to your daughter-in-law and remind her you’re an ally.
“If your son’s relationship with his wife is positive, your daughter-in-law may well appreciate your company,
as well as your help.”
While you don’t want to come across as interfering, tiptoeing around your son’s problems doesn’t assist anyone.
“If you’re worried your son is seriously unwell or at risk, you have a right to step in, especially in a critical, high-risk situation,” he says.

Nurture yourself

Keep in mind that you can’t help your son if your own needs aren’t met. In addition to eating well and exercising to manage stress, it can help to talk to other parents who have been in a similar situation through a family support group, either online or in person.
“These services can connect you to community resources while offering emotional support and encouragement, usually at no charge,” Dr Carbone says.
“You have to accept there are certain limitations as a mother and you can only do your best. While you’re there to support your son, at the end of the day his choices are in his hands.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, call Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636