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Parental Depression Affects 15 Million Kids

Report: More Than 7 Million U.S. Parents Are Depressed; Family Focus Needed for Treatment
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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June 10, 2009 -- Parental depression can take a serious toll on children, and the whole family should be involved in depression care, according to a new report.

That report, issued today by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, estimates that in any given year, 7.5 million U.S. parents are depressed and at least 15 million U.S. children live with a parent who has major or severe depression.

Those are conservative estimates, notes Mary Jane England, MD, who chaired the committee that wrote the report. England is president of Regis College in Weston, Mass., and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Depression is a "major problem that affects a significant number of people" but is "very treatable," England tells WebMD.

The new report is about how parental depression affects children -- and what to do about it.

Parental Depression Affects Kids

The new report traces the impact that parental depression may have on children -- starting even before birth.

Here are some of the findings cited in the report:

  • Depressed pregnant women may be less likely to get prenatal care.
  • Depressed moms may be less attentive or less able to respond in a healthy way to their babies' needs.
  • Parental depression has been linked to children's early signs of, or vulnerability to, having a more "difficult" temperament, including more negativity, less happiness, poorer social skills, more vulnerability to depression, more self blame, less self-worth, and a less effective response system to stress.
  • Older children and teens may experience stress from a depressed parent.

The risks to children differ depending on the child's age, notes committee member William Beardslee, MD, of the psychiatry department at Children's Hospital in Boston.

"Early in life, we worry most that somehow the fundamental bond between the mother and father and the infant may be weakened because of depression," Beardslee says.

"A little later on, when children are older, parents are vitally important in providing structure, order, encouragement, support, helping with school, helping with friendships, and those processes tend to be disrupted when a parent is depressed," Beardslee says.

Most of the research done on parental depression has focused on mothers, especially during pregnancy or when their babies are very young. But parents can become depressed at any age, and depression in dads is also important.

"Fathers are a really critical part of families, and depression in fathers also has an impact on their children," committee member Mareasa Isaacs, PhD, executive director of the nonprofit National Alliance of Multi-Ethnic Behavioral Health Associations, tells WebMD.

Depression saps energy, which can make it harder for patients to seek help.

But "parents care most about their kids and they want to do the right things for their children, so that's a major motivating factor," Isaacs says.

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