Stressed Mothers of Ill Children Seek Help for Other Symptoms, Not Depression

Marlene Busko

May 12, 2008

May 12, 2008 (Washington, DC) — Compared with unstressed mothers of healthy children, chronically stressed mothers of children with leukemia were much more likely to have anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms, in a small study from Mexico.

Although 70% of the chronically stressed mothers sought help from medical practitioners for somatic symptoms such as digestive problems, muscle aches, and headache, none sought help from psychiatrists for depression or anxiety, the researchers, Diana Molina, MD, and Rosalba P. Ochoa, PhD, from the Instituto National de Pediatria, in Mexico City, Mexico, report.

Their findings were presented in a poster at the American Psychiatric Association 161st Annual Meeting.

Understanding the Mind-Body Relationship

The first expressions of depression in these chronically stressed mothers with chronically sick children are medical symptoms, Dr. Molina told Medscape Psychiatry. "The women don't say 'I am depressed,' they say, 'I have this pain,' or 'I have fibromyalgia,' but they don’t seek help for a mental disorder."

The general public needs to become more aware of when to seek professional help and formal therapy for mental health issues, she said.

Although this study was done in mothers of children with leukemia, the findings would also probably apply to other women whose husbands, family members, or children have other chronic diseases, she added.

Stressed vs Unstressed Women

There is evidence that chronic stress increases the risk for psychiatric and medical symptoms, the group writes.

They aimed to compare depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms (medically unexplained physical symptoms) in a group of chronically stressed women vs unstressed women.

The study subjects comprised 30 chronically stressed mothers of children with leukemia and 22 control mothers of healthy children.

The sick children had been receiving chemotherapy for leukemia at a pediatric hospital for more than 6 months. The mothers of the healthy children worked as administrative staff at the hospital and had no major stressful life events in the past 6 months. The chronically stressed mothers and the control mothers were matched for age (mean age 35.07 vs 36.63 years, respectively), marital status, number of children, and religion.

Using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Sheehan Anxiety Scales 1 and 2, the researchers found significantly higher mean anxiety and depression scores in the chronically stressed women vs unstressed women.

Mean Anxiety and Depression Scores, Stressed vs Unstressed Women

Scale Chronically Stressed Women Unstressed Women P
Sheehan Anxiety Scales 1 54.1 ± 33.5 16.7 ± 14.6 .0001
Sheehan Anxiety Scales 2 14.3 ± 11.6 4.8 ± 5.4 .0019
Beck Depression Inventory 18.8 ± 10.2 8.4 ± 5.3 .0003

More chronically stressed women (70%) than unstressed women (18%) had gone to see a physician in the previous 6 months, and 40% of the stressed women had sought help from a priest — a reflection of the fact that most of the population is Catholic.

The somatic symptoms that were significantly more prevalent in the chronically stressed women than in the unstressed women were digestive problems (37% vs 4.5%), muscle and articular pain (33% vs 4%), and headache (48% vs 18%).

Need to Eliminate Stigma

These findings suggest that somatic symptoms are indicative of increasing distress associated with anxiety disorders and depression, the authors write.

The fact that none of the women in the chronically stressed group had sought psychiatric help emphasizes the need for mental health education among the general population and the need to eliminate the stigma that surrounds seeking psychiatric help, they conclude.

The authors did not indicate whether they had any significant financial disclosures.

American Psychiatric Association 161st Annual Meeting: Research Poster NR6-103. May 3-8, 2008.


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