What Neonatal Intensive Care Can Teach Us about Depression

Trying to support someone whose problems you cannot take away is difficult. You want to reach out, to provide whatever comfort you can, yet you know that the problem itself is not something you can control. This is the situation faced by those who have a loved one is in therapy or counseling, struggling with depression. It’s also faced by parents whose newborns are confined to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for serious health problems shortly after birth.

This latter group, parents of newborns in the NICU, struggle not only with worry for their child’s safety, but also miss out on much of the important bonding that takes place during the first few days of an infant’s life. So researchers at several children’s hospitals developed a system that allowed mothers and fathers to read to their children. By reading, they not only helped the child learn the sound of their voices, but were able to find a way to make contact—a feat which, amid incubators, tubes, lights, and monitors, is often difficult. The parents couldn’t do anything to speed their children’s recoveries, but by reaching out in the way that they could, they bettered the situation and promoted bonding, even in a limited capacity. Those reading sessions became so meaningful to the parents that many continued them when they brought the children home.

What does this have to do with depression?  In reality, it’s not just an individual’s therapist or counselor who helps them with their depression. Social support comes from family, friends, and even religious leaders, and can be quite meaningful in helping a person heal. Supporting a person with depression, though, is not easy. Without setting necessary boundaries and taking time out for self-care, supporting a person with depression can lead to burnout and emotional fatigue for the supporter, which doesn’t help anyone. In supporting a person with depression, keep this in mind: like the infant in the NICU, you cannot fix their problems. Like parents reading to their children, reach out to your depressed loved one in the way that you can. The connection can be meaningful and helpful without rendering you depressed as well.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Isaac

    January 7th, 2011 at 12:17 PM

    I’m very glad to see the topic of self-care raised. I love my wife dearly. She had suffered from bouts of depression for decades and life isn’t smooth for those weeks or months. I always wish I could do more for her but I cannot. I couldn’t understand I was incapable of fixing it for a long time and that made me feel inadequate as a husband. Since I signed up for a support group and understood I couldn’t, I am less hard on myself. You shouldn’t lose yourself in their condition.

  • viki

    January 7th, 2011 at 12:54 PM

    reading to the infant may help the parents in reducing their sorrow,but has it been proven that this can actually help the baby recover quicker? I doubt!

  • CherryBlossom

    January 7th, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    I used to think worrying about myself when my partner was in the depths of depression was selfish. I know it’s not now because I’m no use to him if I’m a quivering wreck! There will be a time when I need him more than he needs me. We’re a team and teams don’t rely on one player to succeed.

  • SSD

    January 8th, 2011 at 4:44 AM

    @CherryBlossom:Well said there!I have always believed in the same thing-that partners are like team members and that working together as a team will surely result in a happy relationship.

  • Beth

    January 8th, 2011 at 8:30 AM

    @Viki – It doesn’t help the baby recover (I don’t believe that’s the goal), but it does provide exposure to the parents’ voices, which is an important step in creating a parent-child bond, so I does benefit the infant’s well being.

  • John S.W.

    January 8th, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    When I come home and she’s moping around the house again, I get angry and sad inside. My heart sinks to my shoes. Then I feel guilty. Anger doesn’t help anybody and it’s so inappropriate! She can’t help it but I miss the wife I used to know. I see a glimpse of her once in a while so I know she’s still in there somewhere. Thanks for the article. It’s good to know I’m not alone. I’ll try talking to her again about getting help.

  • Darla

    January 8th, 2011 at 9:26 PM

    Who says it doesn’t help the baby? We can’t know that for sure. Babies recognize their parents voices as soon as they are born. They’ve listened to them from inside the womb for months. That’s also why parents-to-be play their unborn child certain pieces of music. After they are born that same music soothes them. Why would hearing their parents’ familiar voices not help too? The only thing we know is that we don’t know that it wouldn’t!

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