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Should We Reveal Vulnerability and Depression to Our Children and Grandchildren?

I’d like to talk about a difficult topic, depression – and what we may be teaching our children and grandchildren about revealing vulnerability. Or not teaching them.

Lots of people don’t like talking about troubling things. You might rather read a post that’s more light-hearted, more upbeat. Unless you’re one of the ones struggling with difficult feelings – maybe even depression.

The Rise of Depression

There are many current studies highlighting an international rise of depression and suicide. It’s becoming a rampant issue. It is one that is more and more likely to affect your life or the lives of those you love. Wherever you live. At whatever age.

The rise of depression with increased social media involvement in younger people is well documented. Symptoms are being recognized as what they really are. Depression should be grabbing our attention as a culture, and as a world.

I’ve been writing for a few years about a different version of depression, one that won’t likely be included in these studies. This is one where people wouldn’t admit to experiencing symptoms such as depressed mood, not enjoying things that you’ve previously enjoyed, foggy thinking, a tendency to isolate.

It might include sleep and appetite changes, maybe even a sense of hopelessness or helplessness. The symptoms of classic depression might not be present. Or if they are, they aren’t revealed. Ever.

Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD)

Actually, people with PHD look engaged, happy, productive. They’re often the people others look up to, “I want to be like them. They’ve got a great marriage, a wonderful career.”

As we age, these folks are the people who appear to have exciting lives, whether they’re retiring or staying in the work world. They’re busy, busy, busy.

One could even write a midlife blog, touting how stimulating and empowering it is to age gracefully. They’ll give tips for staying active and upbeat, while secretly stumbling down a rabbit hole of despair and emptiness when alone at night.

Obviously, there are some people who are truly doing well. We can all learn from them.

But many of us may believe, and have modeled for our younger people, that it’s not okay to admit feeling overwhelmed. That it’s embarrassing to talk about the discrepancy that can exist between what life looks like and what it feels to be living it.

Stanford Duck Syndrome

In a Gen-Y Psychology Today column, Caroline Beaton quotes a Stanford blogger on the Stanford Duck Syndrome: “Everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly across this Lake College. But below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.”

For Stanford students, the duck syndrome represents a false ease and fronted genius. “Frustration, anxiety, self-doubt, effort and failure don’t have a place in the Stanford experience.”

Where did, “We learn from our mistakes” go?

The Penn Face

How about the Penn face? The student author of this article is warning future graduates of Penn to stay away from the hypocrisy of putting on a smile and trying to look like everything’s going smoothly, when it’s very difficult.

On a national morning show in the US, I heard a psychiatrist answer questions about what parents should do if depression is suspected. The interview was showcasing the book What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan, a true story of one young female Penn track star who jumped to her own death.

The answer troubled me. She basically cited classic symptoms of depression – isolating, sleeping too much or not at all, wanting to drop out of things. At that point, I was yelling at the TV.

Maddie Holleran, the young woman in the book, was talking about not enjoying track anymore, about how much she wasn’t enjoying being at Penn. But she didn’t look consistently depressed.

She put on a great face when taking a selfie or Face Timing with friends. She never told anyone she was thinking of and researching suicide.

Her parents agreed to the book to help others through their own tragedy. What an extremely admirable thing to do – to make your own very private grief, public.

Adults don’t have control over what their children go through. But we do have control of what we teach them and how to handle things if feeling overwhelmed.

We can model openness and honesty. We can remember that depression can wear many faces, and they’re not all sad.

Here’s a questionnaire to determine if you may belong on the spectrum of Perfectly Hidden Depression.

You can hear more about Perfectly Hidden Depression and many other topics by listening to my new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.

Do you agree that we often hide our vulnerability and depression from our friends and family? Please join the conversation below.

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The Author

Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for over twenty years in Fayetteville, Arkansas . Her work is found on her own website, as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, The Gottman Blog and others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a perfect gift book on marriage, and hosts a weekly podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.

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