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.
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.