Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on May 11, 2011
When moms are successfully treated for depression, their children progressively show marked improvement in behavior as much as a year after the end of treatment.
That is the finding of a new study in the American Journal of Psychiatry that also found the faster mothers got better, the faster their kids improved – and the greater the degree of improvement.
“If you treat the mother when she is depressed and don’t even go through the process of treating the children of these mothers, they still get better as their mothers get better,” said Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, a co-author of the study. “It is very rare to treat a patient and have an impact on people around the patient that is this significant.”
He said that the long-lasting effect on children’s behavior is perhaps the most striking aspect of the study.
“One year after their mothers’ remissions, these children continued to show further improvement,” Trivedi said. “This is almost unbelievable.”
The research is part of a series of analyses documenting the negative effects depressed moms have on their children.
About 2.5 percent of children and up to 8.3 percent of adolescents in the U.S. suffer from depression, according to figures compiled by the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).
Research also indicates that depression onset occurs earlier in life today than in past decades. Depression in young people is often accompanied by physical illnesses and other mental disorders such as anxiety, disruptive behavior or substance abuse.
“Depression should not be taken lightly,” Trivedi said.
“For kids’ sakes, we should be very aggressive in treating patients, particularly mothers. The more improved care we can provide to depressed mothers, the greater extent we can positively benefit their children.”
The impact on a child as a result of a mother’s illness cannot be underestimated. In this study, researchers learned that children’s improvement, in terms of both depressive symptoms and social functioning, is associated with the time it took their mothers to get better.
How quickly a mother responded to treatment was important as children of mothers who responded early – recovering from all symptoms within the first three months of treatment – continued to show improvements in both symptoms and social functioning more than a year later.
If their mothers’ remission took longer than three months, children a year later showed improvement in depressive symptoms, but not as much in social functioning.
Children whose mothers did not respond to treatment did not show improvement at all. Instead, their depressive symptoms increased.
“The take-home message is this: The faster we can get mothers better, the greater impact on their children,” Trivedi said.
“When we see a patient/mother with depression, we need to treat them aggressively and fast and get them as close to remission as possible. In the long term, children will have a better outcome than if you take more time to get their mothers better.”
Additionally, a significant association was seen between a mother’s remission time and her household income and marital status.
Mothers who remitted earlier had the highest household incomes and were more likely to be married.