Depressed Mother, Depressed Child

Journal Watch. 2003;2(4) 


Do the timing and type of maternal depression affect a child's risk for depression? To address these issues, which have implications for clinical and preventive interventions, researchers interviewed and examined data on 816 children aged 15 years and their mothers (representing 82% of targeted families selected from a larger, longitudinal study of an Australian birth cohort).

Blinded raters using epidemiological scales interviewed mothers and children separately. Data on maternal depressions and other diagnoses during the first 10 years of the child's life were analyzed by age of the child when the mother had a depressive episode, chronicity, severity, and depression type (moderate- or severe-only versus mild-only). Families with maternal bipolar depression or with child's depression that developed prior to maternal depression were excluded.

Children of depressed mothers were twice as likely to have depression as children of never-depressed mothers (20% vs. 10%). A child's risk for depression increased with exposure to even 1 to 2 months of maternal major depression or to at least 12 months of maternal minor depression (severity of depression contributed more to risk than chronicity). The child's age when maternal depression occurred did not affect the child's risk for depression.

These compelling results add to the growing literature on the risk for depression in children of depressed mothers. Other researchers have found that giving antidepressants during and after pregnancy to depressed mothers has beneficial effects on the cognitive and temperament development of their infants (see Journal Watch Psychiatry Dec 19 2002). More studies of the effects of maternal depression treatment on children's psychiatric status are overdue.

-- Barbara Geller, MD

Hammen C and Brennan PA. Severity, chronicity, and timing of maternal depression and risk for adolescent offspring diagnoses in a community sample. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2003 Mar; 60:253-8.

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