CHICAGO – Treating a mother’s depression can help prevent it and other disorders in her child, say researchers in a provocative study that may influence family health care.
It’s the first time doctors have documented what might seem like common sense, but the results have potentially big public health implications, the study’s authors and other experts say.
“It’s a very dramatic and important finding,” said co-author A. John Rush, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Depression runs in families and has a strong genetic component, but environmental factors can trigger it. The study results indicate that for children of depressed mothers, that trigger is sometimes their mothers’ illness acting up, said lead author Myrna Weissman, a researcher at Columbia University and New York Psychiatric Institute.
Effective treatment for mothers could mean their children might avoid the need for prescription antidepressants, the researchers said.
“Depressed parents should be treated vigorously. It’s a twofer – the impact is not only on them but it’s also on their children,” Weissman said.
In the study, those children whose mothers’ depression disappeared during three months of treatment were much less likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety or behavior problems than those whose mothers did not improve.
The results are “very plausible and very convincing and very useful,” said Nada Stotland, vice president of the American Psychiatric Association and a psychiatry professor at Rush Medical College in Chicago.
“Our society gives a lot of lip service to how important mothers are, but in fact we don’t always appreciate just how profound their effects on their children are,” said Stotland, who was not involved in the study.
Although mothers often tend to put their own needs last, this research “is a good argument for them to take care of themselves first,” she said. “It’s a little like putting your own oxygen mask on first on the airplane. If you can’t breathe, you can’t help anybody.”
The study appears in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association.
Peter Robbins, a Fairfax, Va., psychiatrist, said he’s seen similar results in his pediatric practice and not just with depression.
For example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often have similarly afflicted parents. Getting treatment for the parents yields improvement in the children’s symptoms, he said.
The study underscores “that taking care of the kid means taking care of the whole family,” Robbins said.