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Parents who are depressed are more likely than others to have children with depression. Research found that a mother’s depression particularly influenced their child’s mental health. A father’s depression had more impact on children’s school performance. The study calls for family interventions to treat depression.

Researchers explored whether the timing of a mother’s or father figure’s depression was linked with the impact on their children. They found that parents’ depression during a child’s life had more impact than depression before the child was born. It had more influence on whether the child developed depression or performed worse at school.  

The study highlights the importance of mental health before, during and after birth, in both mothers and father figures. Researchers say that depression has an impact on family life, and that family interventions are needed to treat depression in either parent.

Further information about depression is available on the NHS website.

What’s the issue?

Previous research has shown that children whose mothers have depression are at increased risk of having the condition themselves. They are 3 to 4 times more likely to develop depression than children whose mothers are not depressed. Their genetics may make them more vulnerable than others to depression, but parents’ behaviours could also be important. Depressed parents may be more withdrawn and less able to relate to their child, for example, or they may pass on a pessimistic view of the world.

Having a parent with depression is also known to impair children’s performance at school. However, there is little research into the effect of a father figure’s depression.

Most previous research has looked at whether a parent’s depression (at any point in their life) influences their child’s depression. But the timing matters. People who develop depression early in life (before age 20) tend to have worse physical and mental health, higher rates of suicide and worse performance at school than people who develop it later in life.

Researchers explored whether the timing of a parent’s depression made a difference to their child’s chances of developing it. They compared parents who were depressed only before their child’s birth, only afterwards, or long-term (both before and after birth). They wanted to see how far depression in a mother or father figure impacted childhood depression; and if it was associated with worse performance at school.

The study is part of the Born in Wales research project. Its aim is to understand how health and wellbeing in the family affect the future of children growing up in Wales.

What’s new?

The study was based on 1 million anonymous GP and hospital records of young people (up to the age of 30; average age was 15 years) in Wales. The team identified each young person’s mother and father figure (an adult male living in the same household). They also looked at education records.

The team accounted for the number of house moves in the first 5 years of a child’s life (which could indicate problems) and whether the family lived in a deprived area. They adjusted for the child’s gender, birthweight, and whether they were born at full-term. The mother’s age at the child’s birth was also taken into account.

They found that 1 in 3 (35%) mothers and 1 in 5 (18%) father figures had depression. Fewer children (4%) developed the condition.

Among children with depression, those who had a parent with depression were more likely to have developed the condition when younger (at 19 years, on average), which is linked to worse physical and mental health. Where neither parent had depression, children tended to be older than 20 when they developed depression.

The study found that:

  • children were more likely to develop depression if their mother had depression before the child was born (22% more likely), during the child’s life (55% more likely), or long-term (73% more likely), compared with children of mothers without depression
  • children were more likely to develop depression if their father figure had depression before the child was born (24% more likely), during the child’s life (43% more likely), or long-term (27% more likely), compared with children whose father figures never had depression
  • children were less likely to pass key stage English/Welsh and maths at age 7, 11, and 14 years if either parent had long-term depression. Father figures’ depression had more impact on education than mothers’. However, even when parents had depression only before the child was born, school performance was affected.

Where there was no male living in the household, children were more likely to develop depression and perform worse at school. But they were at lower risk than children living with a male who had depression.

Moving home was associated with less chance of depression but worse school performance.

Why is this important?

Children were most at risk of depression if their mothers had the condition long-term. Current depression had more impact on children than previous depression. Even so, depression prior to the child’s birth still had an effect.

Father figures’ depression impacted childrens’ education, even after they had recovered. Early treatment of depression for parents could therefore protect their children against these outcomes.

The findings suggest that, where either parent has depression, whole-family support is needed. Whole-family interventions for depression could have long-term benefits for children in terms both of their mental health and education.

What’s next?

Support for parents’ depression is needed before and throughout their child’s upbringing. A parent’s depression can affect their child at any time, not just in their early years.

Health visitors in the UK tend to focus on mothers and their children, and pay less attention to father figures. This study shows that the father figure's mental health also has an impact on the child. Increased awareness of this among health visitors could prompt them to recognise depression in father figures and help them access support. However, father figures do not attend the typical appointments (with midwife or health visitor) as often as the mother.

Research into the impact of father figure’s mental health on child development can be difficult to carry out. Data were not available on the effect of a child living with a stepfather or of having regular visits with their biological father. Better links between health records would help researchers explore the impact of father figures’ mental health on child development.

This study only includes those families who are registered with a GP and who have received a diagnosis. The researchers did not have access to information about parenting style, childcare arrangements, learning disability and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). All of these factors could influence the impact parental depression has on children.

You may be interested to read

This Alert is based on: Brophy S, and others. Timing of parental depression on risk of child depression and poor educational outcomes: a population based routine data cohort study from Born in Wales, UK. PLoS ONE 2021;16:e0258966.

A report on the impact of parents’ depression on child wellbeing and development: England MJ and Sim LJ, editors. Depression in parents, parenting, and children: opportunities to improve identification, treatment, and prevention. National Academies Press (US); Washington (DC); 2009.

The UK charity, Dad Matters, which focuses on the health and wellbeing of fathers.

The child’s rights charity, Both Parents Matter.

The Scottish charity, Fathers Network Scotland, which raises awareness of father’s mental health.

A mother and baby unit in Swansea Bay that helps women in Wales who experience serious mental health problems through pregnancy and after the birth of their child.

The Gwent Parent Infant Mental Health Service, a specialist team that provides expertise in supporting and strengthening the important relationships between babies and their parents/carers.

Funding: Born in Wales is a birth cohort study funded by the National Centre for Population Health and Wellbeing Research (NCPHWR). The following grant was aimed at targeting domestic abuse in pregnancy/young families and mental health was found to be a large component associated with domestic abuse: NIHR Public Health Research Project – Unlocking data to inform public health policy and practice.

Conflicts of Interest: The study authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Disclaimer: NIHR Alerts are not a substitute for professional medical advice. They provide information about research which is funded or supported by the NIHR. Please note that views expressed in NIHR Alerts are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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