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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Increased risk of mental illness among children with depressed mothers who have co-occurring problems

Embargoed until 11 October 2012

Adolescent children of mothers with recurrent depression and other mental health problems are at higher risk of developing mental health problems than children of mothers with recurrent depression alone, according to a new study in the British Journal of Psychiatry.


Previous research indicates that the children of mothers with depression are two to five times more likely to develop mental health problems compared to the children of mothers without the illness.


However, the new study used information from a longitudinal study of 223 mothers from South Wales with recurrent depression to examine whether co-occurring problems, such as anxiety, anti-social behaviour or harmful drinking, further increased the risk of mental health problems in their children.


The mothers had been treated for at least two previous episodes of depression and were interviewed, usually at home, at the start of the study in 2007. The children comprised 132 girls and 91 boys aged 9 to 17, with an average age of 12, and were interviewed separately.  Mothers and children were interviewed on a further two occasions, ending in 2011, to examine how children’s mental health changed over the course of the study.


At the start of the study, 40% of the mothers had one or more problems in addition to recurring depression, and 73 children (23%) had a mental health problem, compared with a national average of 11.5% for children aged 11-16.


Among the children who had no mental health problems at the start of the study, 21% experienced problems during the follow up, which consisted of two further assessments, ending in 2011.


The study found that rates of new mental health problems in children increased from 15.7% to 34.8%, depending on the number of additional clinical problems in their mothers. More than half of the new mental health problems in children occurred in the group whose mothers had depression with other clinical problems. The kind of problems experienced by the children included depression, anxiety and disruptive behaviour disorders.


The authors’ conclude: “Co-occurring psychopathology in mothers was a strong predictor of future disorders in offspring.”


In the discussion, the authors say that the mechanism by which mothers’ additional problems may have an impact on their children’s mental health is, however, unclear.


In conclusion, the study highlights the importance of clinicians recognising other problems in mothers with depression. It says that families with a mother who has recurring depression and other mental health problems “should be prioritised for prevention and early intervention.”

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Claire McLoughlin
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