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Vol. LXIII, No. 14
July 08, 2011

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Treating Mom’s Depression Improves Behavior in Youth

Dr. Myrna Weissman
Dr. Myrna Weissman

Attention, mothers—the best prescription for your child may be a dose of your good emotional health, according to a study supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health.

The importance of a strong emotional bond between mother and child has been well documented. Bonding not only provides compassion and security for children, but may also dictate the course of future childhood events—for example, how they do in school, how youth interact with others and even how efficiently adolescents make the transition to adulthood, some experts maintain.

However, bonding doesn’t always come easy, especially for depressed mothers, who often have difficulty fully connecting with their child. And depression is not uncommon in women; it occurs in nearly one in four females during their adult life and is 70 percent more prevalent in women than men, according to NIMH. The institute further adds that the condition is the third leading cause of disease burden in the world, contributing to a variety of causes of mortality (e.g., suicide, heart disease, etc).

Effects of the disorder harm not only the individual; overwhelming evidence indicates that maternal depressive disorders heighten the risk for mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and stress in children—health issues that could become chronic. Could alleviation of mom’s depression help clear up psychiatric symptoms affecting her child?

This theory was investigated by a team of researchers led by Dr. Myrna Weissman and colleagues at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Writing in the Mar. 31 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers assessed children of mothers who were receiving treatment for depression. In the STAR*D Child Study, an observational protocol (youth were not treated by the researchers), children of depressed mothers were evaluated at different time intervals for up to a year to determine rates of depression, anxiety and conduct disorders. Researchers sought to determine whether an association exists between children’s behavioral improvement and that of their mothers, and if so, what the time elements related to the improvement were. At baseline evaluation, 151 mother/child pairs were assessed. Children were between ages 7 and 17.

“One thing that was clearly demonstrated in our work was that as the parents got better, the kids got better—whether the issue was childhood depression, anxiety or conduct disorder. More specifically, what really stood out was that the quicker the mother’s depression resolved, the more rapidly the child’s psychiatric symptoms improved,” said Weissman. On the other hand, children whose mothers showed no abatement in their depression not only did not improve, their problem behaviors worsened over time, she added.

Weissman said she was surprised not so much at the link between a mother’s depression and her child’s behavior, but by just how strong the association of improvement was between the two. Meanwhile she notes the impact depression has on family members.

“We have always argued that depression is a biological illness that is triggered by stress. Think about it, it makes sense: What could be more stressful to a child than a depressed parent?” Weissman asked.

She emphasized the take-home message for despondent mothers. “If you are depressed, get treatment to relieve your symptoms. If one treatment doesn’t work, try another,” she advises. “It will help both you and your family.”

Her future research will pursue similar avenues, including determining whether the same association exists between a father’s emotional state and a child’s behavioral symptoms—and whether successful treatment for dad would confer similar benefits for the child. One of the challenges will be to find male participants in treatment for depression, Weissman explained, as many men do not seek therapy for the condition.NIHRecord Icon

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