Parental depression affects children

Last week I spoke about the long lasting effects on mental health that come from experiencing childhood abuse in any form, and the new research that shows verbal abuse is just as harmful to a child as other forms of abuse or witnessing domestic violence.

Today I'd like to begin a series on the long term effects of living with parents who suffer from untreated mental illness. Obviously, the home environments in households where one or both parents experience a psychiatric condition are likely not the same as the environments found in other households, so how does this affect the children living in these homes?

One recent study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry examined the long term mental health of children with depressed parents. This was a 20-year follow up study of offspring of depressed and non-depressed parents.

In this study, more than 150 children of depressed parents were followed for 20 years and evaluated in adulthood to determine long-term mental health outcomes. On average, study subjects were 35 years old at follow up.

Results found that children of depressed parents are a high risk group for psychiatric and medical problems beginning early and continuing through adulthood.

Risks for anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse were three times as high in this group as in the comparison group of children of non-depressed parents. Social impairment was also higher in the study group.

One drawback of this study is that it does not address the reasons for this increased risk. We assume there would be some genetic predisposition among these individuals, however we don't know how much the risk is increased simply by genetics and how much environment plays into the increased risk. More research is needed to determine this.

More than 60 per cent of those identified as having a psychiatric condition in early adulthood had received no psychiatric treatment. Since the most common age of onset for depressive symptoms was between the ages of 15 and 20, many of these individuals had spent 15 or more years living with depression with no intervention.

This is particularly troubling considering the disability that untreated mental illness can cause in an individual's life as well as the long term health effects, relationship trouble, loss of job potential and other negative impacts associated with this.

If families with depressed parents were educated about the increased risk for their children and were assisted in monitoring family mental health, it would be possible to provide early intervention or even prevent onset of certain disorders in maturing children.

It is important for parents to discuss their depression with their children as they mature and to educate them about the symptoms and potential treatment should they become depressed in the future. It shouldn't be necessary for everyone in the family to figure things out for themselves. It also assists the doctor who sees them if they know their family history.

Failure of family members to discuss these things is just another sign of the stigma attached to mental illness of all types. We pay a high price as individuals and as a society for our silence.


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