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Study Finds Link Between Mother, Child Depression


There is a lot of evidence that if a mother suffers from clinical depression that her children are at increased risk for depression and other psychological problems. Now a study finds that if the mother's depression can be successfully treated, that her child's mental health is markedly improved too. The study is published in the current Journal of the American Medical Association.

Michelle Trudeau reports.


Researcher Myrna Weissman from Columbia University says she's always been interested in the impact on children of having a depressed parent. As an epidemiologist, she's found that the rate of depression in these children increases three fold from ten percent to 30 percent, often beginning before puberty with consequences lasting for decades.

Dr. MYRNA WEISSMAN (Columbia University): A child who gets depressed when they're 12 often doesn't do well in school, may make bad marital and occupational choices, may have difficulty going to college. By the time they're 40 they have many problems in functioning.

TRUDEAU: So Weissman wondered if the parent were successfully treated for depression, would that have an impact on the child's mental health?

Dr. WEISSMAN: So we selected a group of women who had children between the ages of seven and 17 and we asked the question, does the remission of the maternal depression result in improvement in the child?

TRUDEAU: There were 151 mothers, average age 38, each mother struggling with the symptoms of major depression.

Dr. WEISSMAN: She would have symptoms that were nearly every day of feeling hopeless, helpless, feeling life is not worth living, sad, having problems sleeping, feeling guilty.

TRUDEAU: The researchers assessed the children's mental health. They found, as expected, a lot of depression, anxiety and disruptive disorders in these children who had a depressed mom.

Dr. WEISSMAN: Children make big demands on parents and it is very hard for a depressed parent to meet those demands and to meet them in a way that's warm and loving.

TRUDEAU: All the mothers began treatment with an anti-depressant medication. The researchers waited for three months and then again assessed the children's mental health.

Dr. WEISSMAN: Of the mothers who got better, who had a remission, that's they had no symptoms at the end of three months, 11 percent of the children had a decrease in their diagnoses. They were just doing better.

TRUDEAU: These children were no longer depressed, no longer anxious. The rate of these disorders dropped from one in three children, to one in four, merely by effectively treating the mother's depression.

Dr. WEISSMAN: And there was an approximate eight percent increase in the rates of diagnosis in the children in the mothers who did not remit.

TRUDEAU: So depression continuing in mothers led to more children becoming depressed or severely anxious over the three months. Conversely, among the mothers who did get better, there were no new cases of mental health disorders in their children.

Dr. WEISSMAN: We actually were able to watch the waxing and waning and also the increase in development of diagnoses in the relationship to the mother's clinical state.

Dr. WILLIAM BEARDSLEY (Children's Hospital, Boston): This is a very important and exciting study that good treatment for parents can very positively affect their children.

TRUDEAU: Williams Beardsley, a Child Psychiatrist from Children's Hospital in Boston, has worked for years helping families cope with a parent's depression.

Dr. BEARDSLEY: The dominant fact that all of us who are parents is the care of our children. That's no different for someone who's depressed except that someone who's depressed is very likely to say either I'm not a good parent or I'm not able to be a good parent because that's what the illness of depression does to people.

TRUDEAU: But, Beardsley adds, that can change if parents get affective treatment for their depression.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michelle Trudeau began her radio career in 1981, filing stories for NPR from Beijing and Shanghai, China, where she and her husband lived for two years. She began working as a science reporter and producer for NPR's Science Desk since 1982. Trudeau's news reports and feature stories, which cover the areas of human behavior, child development, the brain sciences, and mental health, air on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.