Depression in parents has ‘far-reaching effect’ on children

By Jane Lewis 
A study of more than one million children in Sweden has found that maternal depression and paternal depression are both independently associated with worse school performance at the age of 16 years.

Diagnoses of parental depression have ‘a far­ reaching effect on an important aspect of child development, with implications for future life course outcomes,’ the study authors suggest. 

Commenting on the findings, Professor Philip Mitchell AM, consultant psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute and Head of the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Australia, Sydney, described the study as ‘very impressive and important,’ and said it ‘confirms the effect of parental depression on the functioning of their offspring.’ 

The nationwide cohort study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, examined the school grades of 1,124,162 children, and found that a diagnosis of parental depression during different periods (before birth, after birth, and during child ages 1 to 5, 6 to 10, and 11 to 16 years), or at any time before the child’s final year of compulsory schooling, was associated with worse school performance. Although adjustment for a wide range of covariates attenuated the association, evidence of a parental depression effect remained. 

In terms of magnitude, the effect of parental depression on school performance was found to be similarly as large as the effect of family income, but not as large as the effect of maternal education. Although associa­tions of paternal depression were similar for boys and girls, maternal depression had a larger negative influence on school performance for girls than for boys. 

‘It is likely that these findings are due to a combination of the genetic tendency to depression, as well as the social impact of depression on the capacity of a parent to engage with and relate to their children,’ Professor Mitchell told Medicine Today. ‘The take­ home message for clinicians is that depression in parents should be actively treated – by psychological treatments or antidepressants – as it is now clear that depression not only impacts upon the patient, it also has profound effects on the next generation.’ 

The author of an accompany­ing editorial said the study had ‘numerous strengths’ and ‘contributes substantially’ to findings in clinical psychology that the offspring of depressed parents tend to have consider­ able emotional and functional problems. In addition to parental depression having a far­ reaching effect on child development, ‘effective treatment of the diagnosed parents may also have far reaching effects,’ the editorialist suggested. 
JAMA Psych 2016; doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.2917.
JAMA Psych 2016; doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.2967.

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