Successfully treating mothers for depression can do wonders for their childrens mental health.
So says a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study, part of ongoing research aimed at discovering the best practices for treating psychiatric problems in the United States, confirms what many clinicians have long suspected -- that childrens moods and behaviors can be affected profoundly by the mental health of their parents.
Our study is total common sense and it works, said the lead author, Myrna M. Weissman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan.
Weissman said she hopes the results will convince pediatricians to look beyond the patient when a child comes to the office with behavior problems.
You should find out whats going on in the home, Weissman suggested. If its a depression in either parent, the parent should be encouraged to get treatment.
Often, Weissman said, mothers are so busy caring for their families that they ignore their own depression, partly because it can cause inertia, and partly because women tend to put the needs of their families ahead of their own.
We had a hard time finding women with children to come in for treatment, Weissman said of the study, which was done at seven outpatient psychiatric clinics across the country.
If women know that depression can harm their children they might be encouraged to seek help, said Dr. Craig Martin, an adult and child psychiatrist at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield, Conn.
What it does is gives additional data that clinicians can share with families to underscore the importance of treatment, Martin said.
For the study, researchers looked at 151 mothers who sought treatment for depression. They then referred one child from each family for evaluation by a clinician who did not know about the mothers depression. The children ranged in age from 7 to 17.
After three months, researchers found that children of mothers whose depression improved with treatment also showed improvement in their mental health. At the same time, children whose mothers did not improve during treatment showed an increase in psychiatric problems.
While depression in fathers can be equally damaging to children, Weissman said, she studied mothers because women are more likely than men to seek treatment. But she said the results apply to both parents.
Certainly, parents are the most important people in a childs life, said Mary Gratton, director of child and adolescent services at the Institute of Living in Hartford. If the primary caregiver is stressed, it makes sense that it affects the children.
Gratton said she has long believed that the epidemic in childhood mental health problems can be traced, at least in part, to parents who are struggling. Parents should not be blamed, she said, but should be encouraged to seek help.
If mental health screenings for parents were added to routine prenatal and pediatric well-child care, many problems, including depression, could be identified before they damage the child, Gratton said.