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Special Needs Parents: What to Do When You’re Depressed?

How to tell the difference between fatigue and depression, plus local respite programs

Andrea Mitchell is peppy. With doe-like eyes and a warm, easy smile, the Richardson mom doesn’t seem a likely candidate for depression. But she remembers well the first time she told someone she thought she might be depressed. “I remember I was in an OB-GYN visit and I just said, ‘I feel nuts. I feel like I can’t get a grip. Everything feels dark and gloomy,” says Mitchell.

Less than two years after giving birth to her daughter Ella, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, severe developmental delays and epilepsy, she had a second child, Will. That’s when the feelings started. Mitchell was not sure if it was just a funk or something more. Her husband, Joe, noticed too. “I was on a medication to help with my breast milk for Will,” Mitchell explains, “and I got off of it, and Joe gently pointed out that I still wasn’t myself.”

Depression is more common among parents of kids with disabilities than parents of typically developing kids, though a 2012 study conducted by Texas A&M University gives reason to be hopeful: Their research suggests that the rate of depression in parents of children with disabilities might be significantly lower than previously thought. While prior studies pointed to a rate of more than half, Texas A&M researchers put the number closer to 20 percent.

Still, it is difficult for parents of kids with special needs to seek treatment—or to even see past their child’s needs and recognize their own. Amid therapy appointments, doctors’ visits and other caregiving responsibilities, parents might feel they don’t have the time, energy or money for their own therapy.

“I got to the point where I would just lay in bed and ask God to just help me to get out of bed. Every day felt like a bad day.”

But for Mitchell, seeking treatment for depression was ultimately something she did for her family as well as herself. “That saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup is true,” she says.

With the growing amount of resources and support for parents of children with special needs, treatment is easier than ever once signs of depression are identified.

“There are so many solutions available for dealing with depression,” says Michele Greer, a licensed professional counselor with practices in Corinth and Frisco. “You have to know that what you are feeling is treatable, and that there is hope.”

Lacking Joy

Looking back, Mitchell says the first real sign that what she was feeling might be more serious than just the regular stress of being a caregiver was that she felt low-functioning—like she was in a haze, still getting things done but lacking joy.

In hindsight, Duncanville mom Kay Scott (whose name has been changed at her request) recognizes similar symptoms in herself. Scott’s 4-year-old son, Landon, is on the autism spectrum.

“I was struggling to find energy every day,” she remembers tearfully. “Previously, I would wake up filled with purpose and excited to start the day, but then I got to the point where I would just lay in bed and ask God to just help me to get out of bed. Every day felt like a bad day.”

A lack of joy, heightened anxiety, feelings of hopelessness and a change in attitude and behavior are hallmarks of depressive episodes; however, Greer says that for parents of children with special needs, separating the normal stress and fatigue of being a caregiver from the symptoms of depression might be slightly different than for their counterparts with typical kids.

“In caregivers, alongside the symptoms of isolation and a falling off in functioning, I check for purpose and meaning in other aspects of their lives,” Greer says. She looks to see “if there are still areas of joy as a spouse, a friend, a daughter or son, or if their lives are boiling down to one thing.”

Often the needs of their children are still met, but they begin to retreat from things that bring them joy or give them an identity outside of their child. “It may manifest as being able to meet the needs of your child but not making time or having interest in much else,” Greer says.

Jamie Candler oversees a program that provides support groups, Bible studies and respite nights for families of children with special needs through First United Methodist Church in Mansfield. She has learned to look for signs of depression in parents who come to her programs. “For me, it goes beyond the basic symptoms of fatigue because all of these parents are tired,” she explains, “but isolation is a red flag—if they begin to withdraw, if they were once very talkative and now they clam up.”

She also says a change in appearance can be a sign. “We had a mom who came regularly who had a lot of fun dressing herself and really enjoyed looking nice, and I noticed that she stopped finding joy in that—her style of dress changed,” Candler recalls. “I asked if she was OK, and she said she was feeling pretty down lately, which lead to more discussion and the realization that she might be depressed.”

Talking About Your Feelings

These discussions are critical in helping parents realize that they might be experiencing more than just stress and are usually the first step toward getting help—but talking about it is not easy, especially for caregivers. Scott says her husband noticed the change in her, but she tried to hide the way she was feeling from others. “I didn’t want to overwhelm people or be a burden.”

“You have to set aside your assumptions that people around you might not want to hear from you.”

Ultimately she needed prompting from a trusted friend in order to seek help. “Because of Landon’s diagnosis, I had to learn to filter out a lot of what people were saying to me,” she recalls, “so it’s possible that someone else may have hinted that I was depressed, but when you are the mom of a special needs child, you are constantly bombarded with information, and you get good at blocking some of that out.”

But when her best friend suggested counseling, Scott listened—sort of. “Well, I listened, but I also told her she was mistaken,” she admits, laughing. “I didn’t see what she was seeing in myself.” Her friend again pushed for her to try one counseling session, and that session put Scott on a path to wellness. If no one is reaching out to you, don’t be afraid to reach out yourself, advises Greer.

“You have to set aside your assumptions that people around you might not want to hear from you,” she says. “The very best thing you can do for yourself and ultimately for the health of your family is to reach out and let people know what you need or if you are struggling.”

Greer adds that what you say to yourself is just as important as what you say to others, and examining you inner dialogue is a good way to see if you might be depressed. “A change in self-talk language where there is more use of absolutes like ‘always’ and ‘never’ can indicate a feeling of hopelessness,” she explains.

“I was definitely using ‘always’ and ‘never’ statements, and when I started to feel better, I learned to replace those with ‘sometimes’ and ‘often.'”

Scott says that on days when she felt the lowest, she would fall into fearful thinking patterns. “I would be projecting our current situation into our future, thinking things like ‘It will always be like this’ or ‘It will never get better,’ when really things are changing all the time,” she recalls. “I was definitely using ‘always’ and ‘never’ statements, and when I started to feel better, I learned to replace those with ‘sometimes’ and ‘often.’”

Mitchell says friends helped her change her mindset. “They continually pointed me back toward the truth and reminded me who I am,” she says. Now she’s proactive about what she allows her mind to focus on. “You have to redirect your mind back to your truth about who you are and who your child is,” she explains, “so for me, I read a lot of scripture, I listen to uplifting music and I feel my countenance change.”

Help from the Crowd

Many parents of children with special needs put off getting help because they lack resources or time, says Greer. “Or sometimes they have gotten so caught up in being a caretaker that they don’t register their own needs as justifiable,” she adds.

That’s why Mitchell chose to confide in a doctor she was already seeing. “I didn’t feel like I had the time to find a counselor and add that to my list,” she explains, “but I already had this OB-GYN appointment, and I trusted my doctor. He knew my baseline, so I addressed the issue there.”

“My counselor recognized that counseling can be expensive, and so she focused on helping me create coping strategies and identify things that were bringing unnecessary anxiety into my life.”

Her doctor, who had been involved in her care since before Ella was born, put Mitchell on Lexapro, a medication used to help increase serotonin levels in the brain. “After a few weeks, Joe noticed that I seemed more like myself,” she says. “And it helped me just to get a handle on things, to feel like me again.”

Mitchell stayed on the Lexapro for a few months and then, with her doctor’s guidance, began to wean off it. “The medicine gave me the desire I needed to work on my mindset,” she says.

For Scott, the counseling session her friend recommended turned into a few repeat visits where she learned that anxiety was what was leading to her depression. “My counselor recognized that counseling can be expensive, and so she focused on helping me create coping strategies and identify things that were bringing unnecessary anxiety into my life,” Scott says.

She adds that being in counseling helped her see that her son’s older sister might need some emotional therapies as well, so the couple put her in play therapy. “It was wonderful for her,” Scott says.

Greer points out that there are treatment solutions to match the needs, time restraints and financial limitations of caregivers. “I don’t think people realize that there are so many solutions to deal with depression,” she says.

For example, Scott joined a no-cost support group for parents of kids with special needs. “That was a game changer for me because it’s such an environment of support and understanding,” Scott says. She reveals that simply hearing that other people have the same struggles she does changed the way she felt about herself and her situation.

Candler echoes Scott’s praise of support groups. “None of their children have the same diagnosis,” she says, “but they can walk in and feel vulnerable enough to say when things are hard.” She says that while money might keep many parents from getting the help they need, in support groups they can rally around each other with encouragement, advice and resources to keep each other afloat.

Being part of a community was critical to combating the loneliness and isolation that Mitchell felt as a mom of a child with special needs. “Even when you don’t feel like it, or you don’t want to be vulnerable, I would say it’s worth it to force yourself to be in a community, accept help from them, and be honest with them.”

Reclaiming Your Joy

It’s important for parents to not only realize the toll their depression might be having on their families, but to also understand what a gift it is to the family when the depressed parent gets help.

“It’s like the oxygen masks on an airplane,” Greer explains. “You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.”

Looking back, Mitchell is so glad that her husband said something to her about her depressive symptoms. “I thought I was feeling down, so there was huge relief in that validation that no, I am not myself right now,” she says. She believes that getting treatment while Will was a baby gave her the energy she needed to involve him in Ella’s care. “Will has been a helper since he could walk,” she says.

These days, staying busy, having a supportive community, attending a church that meets Ella’s needs and monitoring herself when she feels down all help her to avoid the stresses and anxieties that can trigger depression.

Greer says that a healthy caregiver is one who finds purpose and meaning in several areas of their lives outside of caregiving. Getting to that point requires support—and time.

Scott gives a long sigh as she thinks back to her most depressed days. “Looking back, you do what you have to do to get to the next day,” she says, “and it’s not until now that I can sit here and realize how bad [my depression] actually was.”

The strategies she learned through her support group and counseling sessions, combined with the passage of time, have helped her to feel joyful again.

“I used to think to myself that every day was a bad day, and that wasn’t really true,” she says. “Now I am able to say, ‘Some days are bad, and some days are good, but we are OK,’ and I can handle the bad days, and I can celebrate the good days.”

Rethinking Social Media

“Depression can be a chemical problem, but it’s definitely triggered by stress,” says Richardson mom Andrea Mitchell. One of the major culprits? Social media. Mitchell says those shareable moments like the first day of school or trick-or-treating can be difficult because her oldest child has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and developmental delays.

Duncanville mom Kay Scott, whose son has autism, can relate. “Our milestones didn’t look like every else’s,” she explains. “My son didn’t want a birthday party surrounded by his friends. He wanted to be alone in a room.”

Social media also provided information overload that triggered Scott’s anxiety. “People would share so many articles about autism that were so negative,” she says. For Scott, the best option was to cut social media out of her life. “It was easier for me just not to engage in that instead of comparing myself,” she explains.

Mitchell enjoys the connections and support she has through social media, but she is careful what she lets in. “You have to really focus on things that you know are good and true,” she says. “Have joy for others but be OK with saying, ‘It’s different for us and that’s where we are.’”

Respite Programs for Special Needs

According to Greer, the best way to stave off depression is to make time for your joys and interests, including spending time with your partner. These respite care programs for families with special needs can help you take a night off.

Please contact the organization for the most up-to-date information, as programs, schedules and availability may change.

Parents’ Night Out is held one Saturday a month during the school year for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade. Reservations are required. // First Baptist Church, 201 E. McDermott Drive, Allen 972/727-8241; fbcallen.org/specialneeds

JCK Game Day is held the fourth Sunday of the month from 4–6pm. Open primarily for adults 18 and older with special needs, but all game lovers are encouraged to attend. Free. // First United Methodist Church, 601 S. Greenville Ave., Allen; 214/385-8850; firstallen.org

Harvey’s Kids takes place the second Saturday of every month from 5–8pm. Reservations required. // Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, 1901 E. Peters Colony Road, Carrollton; 972/492-2432; hcumc.org

Loving Hands Ministry offers respite care for kids up to age 16 and their siblings up to age 10. Call to confirm future dates. // First United Methodist Church, 420 S. Heartz Road, Coppell; 972/462-0471; fumccoppell.org

Nights Lights takes place from 6–10pm on the first, second and third Friday of every month (except January and July) at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church; first Fridays at White Rock United Methodist Church; and on the third Fridays at Christ Foundry United Methodist Mission (for Spanish-speaking families). Free; registration required. // Multiple locations; 214/706-9535; raysoflightdallas.org

NightOWLS happens two Fridays a month from 6–10pm. Ages 3 months–13 years. Free, but families must apply in advance. // Munger Place Church, 5200 Bryan St., Dallas 214/823-9929; mungerplace.org

Breakaway is a respite night for kids with special needs (all ages) and their siblings (0–12 years) on the third Friday of the month except June, July and December. // Christ Chapel Bible Church, 3701 Birchman Ave., Fort Worth; 817/546-0876; ccbcfamily.org

Bryan’s Buddies takes place one Friday a month from 6:30–9:30pm. Ages 3–18. Free; contact Joyce King at fumcdt@gmail.com. // First United Methodist Church, 422 Church St., Grapevine; 817/481-2559; firstmethodistgrapevine.org

Arise is held one Saturday a month from 5:30–8:30pm; all ages and siblings welcome at these monthly respite programs and during special event throughout the year. Free. // Irving Bible Church, 2435 Kinwest Parkway, Irving; 972-560-4600; arisespecialneeds.com

The special needs program at First UMC Mansfield includes Nature Club on the last Tuesday from 11am–noon. Email included@fmcm.org for more information. // First United Methodist Church, 777 N. Walnut Creek Drive, Mansfield; 817/477-2287; firstmethodistmansfield.org

Friday NITE Friends is a respite program on Friday evenings from 6–10pm. It accepts children with medical and special needs up to age 13, and siblings are welcome up to age 12. // Custer Road United Methodist Church, 6601 Custer Road, Plano; 972/618-3450; fridaynitefriends.org

For children as young as 12 months to adults up to 60 years, Plano Adapted Recreation offers several programs, everything from sports classes and a monthly dance club to adult trips. Look online at the complete schedule and to register. // Multiple locations, Plano; 972/941-7250; plano.gov

This article was originally published in May 2019.

Image: iStock