Even Mild Maternal Depression, If Prolonged, Predicts Depression in Offspring

NEW YORK (Reuters Health)  – Depression is twice as common among children of depressed mothers than among children of mothers who have never been depressed, findings from a new study indicate. The researchers also found that maternal depression does not need to be severe to increase the child’s risk of depression.

Previous reports have identified maternal depression as a risk factor for depression and other disorders in children, note Dr. Constance Hammen, from the University of California at Los Angeles, and Dr. Patricia A. Brennan, from Emory University in Atlanta. However, few studies have evaluated how the severity, chronicity, and timing of such depression influences this risk.

As reported in the March issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, the two researchers evaluated these factors in a group of 816 women and their 15-year-old children, derived from a large birth cohort study conducted in Brisbane, Australia. The parents and children were interviewed separately by a team of psychology graduate students to characterize their depression history.

By 10 years of age, 20.1% of children born to depressed mothers had developed depression or dysthymia, compared with only 10.2% of children born to mothers who had never been depressed. Similarly, children of depressed mothers were about twice as likely as their peers to develop an anxiety disorder.

The severity of maternal depression was found to be a stronger predictor of childhood depression risk than the chronicity. Still, mild maternal depression for 12 months or longer was associated with a significantly increased risk of offspring depression. Timing of maternal depression was not an independent predictor of offspring depression.

These results underscore “concern about the deleterious effects of significant maternal depression–whether even brief major depressions or milder but enduring depression–and the need to increase our efforts to reach parents who are reluctant to seek treatment,” the authors state.

However, the results also provide reassurance that brief periods of mild maternal depression are not associated with an increased risk of depression in children, they add.

Arch Gen Psychiatry 2003;60:253-258.


David Britton specializes in the treatment of depression.

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Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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