Maternal Depression Has Dramatic Consequences for Kids
> 10/18/2007 12:57:16 PM

The effects of postpartum depression on the emotional developmentof infants have been thoroughly explored in recent years. More severeconditions have received far less attention from the research communitydue to their relative rarity, but new data summarized in a press release by the Institute of Psychiatryin London indicates that collected clinical data will confirm whatcommon sense suspects: children whose mothers suffer from major mentalillnesses in the months and years after giving birth are far morelikely to encounter emotional and behavioral problems of their own asthey grow older.

Previous analysis revealed that a surprisingly large number of new mothers(up to 35-50%) suffer from, at the very least, minor cases of temporal"baby blues" and that at least one in ten of those cases develops intomore pronounced problems, also implying that a considerable portion ofthose who would qualify for subsequent diagnoses of major depressivedisorder, anxiety disorder or some form of psychosis do not seektreatment due to a sense of personal shame or the mistaken belief thatsuch conditions are normal and should be eliminated through willpowerand discipline or "toughing it out" for the sake of the baby. Thisperspective is grossly skewed, as a mother's battles with depressionwill inevitably extend their influence to her child. Unfortunately,many of the children of women suffering from severe mental healthissues are ultimately taken into the care of a third party, anoccurrence that both compromises their development and decreasesopportunities for related research. Those involved in the mental healthcommunity should do all we can to dispel these counter-productivebelief systems.

Perhaps the most damaging effect of majordepression or psychosis on a young child is an affected mother'sresulting inability to connect with her son or daughter on an emotionallevel. While babies have yet to develop the self-awareness that comeswith age, they recognize very subtle emotional cues, from tone of voiceto manner of physical contact, and conditions like depression,schizophrenia and bipolar disorder compromise a mother's ability toread and respond, in turn, to her child. Without this most basicsupport system, a child will often become more fussy and badly behaved.At 7 years of age, children of women who'd experienced even minorpreiods of protracted depression during the first 5 years of life hadalready demonstrated significantly higher rates of antisocial behaviorthan their control-group peers. Possible contributors to this trendinclude a antisocial genetic predisposition handed down from mother tochild and a greater likelihood that depressive and antisocial womenbear children by antisocial men, but the behavioral manifestations ofdepression itself clearly play the largest role in determining thefuture behavioral habits of affected kids. Antisocial behavior is notthe only unwanted product of maternal depression: in recent surveys,3-year-olds whose mothers had been chronically depressed also scored loweron language skills and comprehension tests designed to measure theiracademic readiness. The reason given by researchers? Chronicallydepressed mothers were "less sensitive"with their children.

Notonly were these children not socially well-adjusted, they were notsufficiently prepared for school either. The importance of seekingtreatment is obviously the largest issue raised by this report. Womensuffering from major mental illness who do not receive an effectiveform of treatment cannot be expected to fulfill parenting duties totheir full capacity, and an infant's first years have long been deemedthe most important predictors of future circumstances andpersonalities. A mother who suffers from any form of mental illness anddoes not seek treatment either because she believes that she can dowithout it, because she fears it to be evidence of her own personalinsufficiency  or because she does not believe that her complaintswarrant medical treatment threatens her child's well-being just asdramatically as her own. Such women should be reminded that theirexperiences are extremely common and do not in any way stand indetriment to their character. They should also receive monetary supportfrom their insurance plans, private or public, if they cannot affordsuch services. The interests of all parties would be better served.

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