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Depression: When It’s All in the Family

If depression runs in your family, you can help yourself -- and your children -- identify and cope with the condition.

Helping Children at Risk for Depression continued...

“If we had heart disease in my family, I’d be vigilant about that,” she says. “As parents, we all want our kids to be perfect and happy and completely healthy. So my big hope was that this misses my kids --it’s not an easy thing to deal with in life. If it doesn’t, we’re going to get them the right help.”

That’s the proper approach, says Julie Totten, whose brother, Mark, committed suicide at age 26 after undiagnosed depression. “I felt devastated because he had a treatable condition,” she says. Totten founded Families for Depression Awareness, a group that helps families recognize and cope with depression and other mood disorders.

Totten suggests that families with a history of depression establish a relationship with a mental health professional before a child at risk develops symptoms of depression. “There aren’t many child psychiatrists, so if you have a crisis, it’s hard to find somebody,” she says.“It’s almost better to make an appointment and have regular checks.” And it behooves parents with a family history of the disease to educate themselves about the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The Bipolar Family Tree

Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depressive illness, is another mental illness that often runs in families and may be inherited. If one parent has the disease, a child faces a 15% to 30% risk. If two parents have it, a child’s risk rises to 50% to 75%. Another sign that bipolar disorder might be in the genes: More than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative with either this illness or major depression.

People with bipolar disorder have episodes of depression that alternate with bouts of mania or elation. The disease affects men and women equally, but women tend to have more depressive symptoms, while men have more manic symptoms.

Creating a bipolar disorder family tree might yield clues about whether this illness runs in your family. Bipolar disorder usually develops in late adolescence or early adulthood, although it can occur during childhood or later in life. Doctors recommend that parents seek an evaluation from a mental health professional if a child or teen shows emotional or behavioral problems.

Depressed Mothers Need Treatment, Too

What else can parents do? Get treatment for your own depression, Weissman says, especially if you’re a woman. A depressed mother “is both a genetic and an environmental risk factor,” she says. Children of a depressed parent receive less care and attention and more criticism and exposure to marital strife. “That’s a very stressful environment for the child,” Weissman says.

In a 2008 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Weissman reports that when women were treated successfully for depression, their children’s psychiatric problems, such as anxiety and behavior disorders, also improved, compared to the offspring of women whose depression did not lift with treatment. The women who got better became more interested and involved with their children, Weissman says. “There’s a lot you can do about it,” she says of familial depression. “If you can get the mother better and you can also get the child better, that’s a big success.” She is now studying depressed fathers’ effects on their kids.

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