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Health & Parenting

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Treating Parent Depression Helps Kids

When Parent's Depression Lifts, Children's Mental Health Improves
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 21, 2006 -- When parents' depression gets better, their kids' mental health improves. But when parents' depression doesn't lift, the kids' mental health gets worse.

The finding is part of the large STAR-D trial funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health. The study is trying to find out what it takes to put serious clinical depression into remission -- not just to improve symptoms, but also to get people over their illness.

Columbia University researcher Myrna M. Weissman, PhD, led a team that studied 151 depressed mothers enrolled in the STAR-D trial. The researchers also evaluated one of each woman's 7- to 17-year-old children. Their findings appear in the March 22/29 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"This offers dramatic evidence that children benefit from successful treatment of a parent's depression," Weissman tells WebMD.

Getting Help Is Essential

The study has a dark side. When depression treatment didn't work -- or didn't reduce a mother's depressive symptoms by at least half -- children suffered worsening mental health.

In the STAR-D study, only a third of the mothers got fully better -- what doctors call remission -- within three months. Only half had a 50% reduction in symptoms, which is the minimal improvement found to help the depressed parent's children.

This means it's essential for a depressed parent to get immediate help and to stay with treatment until something works, says Eva Ritvo, MD. Ritvo is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Fla.

"Not only do children get well when the parent's depression gets better, but they get worse if the parent does not," Ritvo tells WebMD. "So a parent's depression should be treated early and aggressively and thoroughly. This tells us that depression is real, that treatment really helps, and that other family members are impacted by this disease and by its treatment."

How Parents' Depression Affects Kids

Weissman's team found that at the beginning of the study, half the kids had a history of psychiatric disorders and a third was currently suffering mental health problems.

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