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Hax: Mom wonders how to help her depressed daughter

| Sunday, April 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Our 22-year-old daughter lives with her boyfriend, whom we don't really like, but we are cordial when we get together. A friend of our daughter's recently contacted me to say she had received a “very frightening” note from our “very depressed” daughter, then later backtracked and said there was nothing to worry about and our daughter probably would reach out to us when the time was right.

Piecing together some other facts, I am fairly certain our daughter had an abortion last month. I suspect the friend reached out because she felt it was “above her paygrade” to help our daughter deal with her depression. Our daughter has been out of touch for three weeks, which is uncharacteristic, texting us only that she's been really busy.

I'm not sure whether I should call and ask if something's up, or wait for her to bring it up. She has every right to her privacy, but I am concerned this depression could spiral downward. What would you do?

— Worried

I'd wait till she was ready to tell me, but in the meantime call “just to say hi.” I'd also put myself in her path, ever so gently, to make it easy for her to lean on me — maybe, trump up something to drop off at her apartment.

Normally I wouldn't insinuate myself into an adult's life like that, but depression is an exceptional case. Someone needs to be willing to override — judiciously — the normal limits to get a good look.

Re: Worried:

Call. Please call. You don't need to pry, but depression can make reaching out to people so impossibly hard. When you're depressed, one person's “didn't want to pry” can feel very much like “doesn't even care.”

— Anonymous

Thanks for this, and also for the nudge to answer more fully:

Anyone in this parent's position would do well to read up on depression. Depression makes getting out of bed, making a phone call, going out for a run, etc., feel like an insurmountable obstacle.

Depression also lies. Depression will say, “No one will care if I stop calling,” when, in fact, people care a lot. Knowing about depression will help loved ones not take personally the resistance s/he gets from the depressed person. It's important to know when it's the illness talking.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) has good information, as does the National Institute of Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml).

Re: Worried:

I could have been that daughter. I kept it from my parents because I thought they would judge me, and I was terrified of tainting their image of me.

I'm 90 percent positive, though, that if they had told me specifically that they would love me no matter what was going on (and they knew somethingwas), then I would have opened up and started healing much sooner than I did.

— Anonymous 2

Very useful, thanks. It's also good to say this to loved ones when things are chugging along as usual. That lays a foundation for when it's time to step in.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.

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