Mental Health

Treating Teens' Depression Could Improve Parents' Mental Health, Study Finds

Depression may not be a virus, but it does have a "contagious" quality according to psychologists. Mood disorders in parents have been studied extensively to understand how they contribute to mental health-related consequences in children.

Now, preliminary research has looked at the association from the other way around, revealing an improvement in parents' mental health when their children receive treatment for depression. 

"Parental Depressive Symptoms Over the Course of Treatment for Adolescent Depression" was presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco, California, on Aug. 11.

"We're social creatures," said Kelsey R. Howard of Northwestern University, who presented the research. "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."

Participants in the study comprised of 325 teenagers who were diagnosed with depression and 325 of their parents or caregivers. One-quarter of the parents also reported moderate to severe levels of depression before the start of treatment.

The teens were randomly assigned to one of three types of treatment: therapy, medication or a combination of both. They were followed through treatment for around nine months.

It was found that, regardless of the treatment type, parental depression improved over the course of the treatment. This, the authors stated, was associated with their children experiencing improvement over time.

Howard explained that the findings made sense, given how the low mood of one family member could influence others. As the child struggles or sees improvement with regards to their mental health, their state can influence how they communicate with the parent and affect how the parent thinks. 

"Relationships are reciprocal," said Laura Mufson, the associate director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University, who was not involved in the study. "If one child isn’t doing well, if they’re having mood problems, if they’re more irritable — it’s affecting their behavior that impacts the rest of people in the family."

However, this is not an isolated factor but just one of many that could affect parental depression. When treating children, clinicians may consider assessing depression levels in their parents as well. Understanding the emotional health of the family could help them improve their approach or provide appropriate referrals.

"More young people today are reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness and suicidal thoughts," Howard said.

Suicide rates have seen a rise in most parts of the United States, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "This research may help healthcare providers as we grapple as a nation with how to address these alarming trends," she added.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day.