Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Treating Teen Depression Can Improve Parents' Mental Health

Know that depression may not necessarily just affect one individual in a family. 

It has been ascertained that an estimated 12.8 percent of adolescents in the US experience at least one episode of major depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And based on previous related studies, many of those teens' mental health is linked to depression in their parents. 

New research, however, is suggesting there's a flipside to that parental effect: When teens are treated for depression, their parents' mental health improves, too. 

Myrna Weissman, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University, believes that depression is a family affair. Weissman having studied depression in families for years, says: "We know that there's high rates of depression in the offspring of depressed mothers". 

And her previous work has shown that when mothers are treated for depression, their children actually feel better as well. 

Those findings led another researcher, Kelsey Howard, to wonder whether the opposite is true – if kids get better, do the parents then feel better? 

To address her question, Howard, a graduate student at Northwestern University's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and her adviser, Mark Reinecke, analyzed data from a 2008 study that followed 325 teens getting treatment for depression over the course of a one-year period – either through counseling, medication or both. 

Before the treatment began, a quarter of the parents reported moderate to severe levels of depression. When the teens had completed the treatment, and after an additional year of follow-up visits, the researchers found that despite the treatment process focusing on the children and not the parents – when the severity of an adolescent’s depression lessened, so did similar symptoms in the parent, regardless of what treatment was used. 

Howard, who presented those results at the American Psychological Association's annual conference (August 09-12, 2018) in San Francisco, USA, says the results make sense.

"We're social creatures", she says. "We exist in families, we exist in social networks. And a lot of our well-being, a lot of our highs and lows might come from these relationships". 

When a parent sees their child struggle, it might affect their mood; when the child feels better, their spirits lift as well. Improvement in the child's mental health might also improve communication between parent and child, which might also help improve the parents' depression. 

As Howard notes, the findings could be useful for healthcare providers, as they could consider assessing a parent’s level of depression when treating their child – besides helping them deal with the high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among teenagers. 

Judy Garber, a Vanderbilt University psychology professor, however, cautions that the study didn't conclusively prove that changes in parents' mental health is a direct effect of improvement in the children. There may be other confounding factors at play that weren't investigated. 

Still, she says she too is very much encouraged by the findings. "It's very promising that there are changes in parents' depression when the kids are getting better. I think that's great". 

Still, Garber acknowledges that the results can serve as a reminder for parents to take their own mental health seriously, especially if their child is struggling.

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