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Kids' Grades Can Suffer When Mom Or Dad Is Depressed

Apr 4, 2016
Originally published on April 6, 2016 11:01 am

When parents suffer depression, there can be a ripple effect on children. Kids may become anxious, even sad. There may be behavior problems. Health may suffer.

Recently, a large Swedish study showed that grades may decline, too, when a parent is depressed.

Using data from 1984 to 1994, researchers from Philadelphia's Dornsife School of Public Health, at Drexel University, measured school grades for more than 1.1 million children in Sweden and compared them with their parents' mental health status. The study was published in a February issue of JAMA Psychiatry.

At age 16, children of mothers who had experienced depression scored about 4.5 percentage points lower in their school grades than children of nondepressed mothers. Similarly, 16-year-olds with fathers who had experienced depression scored about 4 percentage points lower.

Even though 4 or 4.5 points may not sound like much, it "can mean a lot for a student," says Drexel epidemiologist Felice Le-Scherban. It may be the difference between an A grade or a B — or between a D and a C — and small grade differences can add up, sometimes shaping a decision about whether to stay in school or quit.

The quantity and quality of education can make a difference well beyond school years, says Le-Scherban. It's one of the "strongest predictors of health and life expectancy that we have," she says.

Studies show that better-educated individuals are less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or be obese than those who don't finish high school or college. They tend to have a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.

There are a number of reasons why depressed parents can have a difficult time nurturing their children, says epidemiologist Myrna Weissman, of Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

"Just think about the symptoms of depression — the feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, loss of energy, interest in things that usually give you pleasure," she says. "And think about having those symptoms and trying to take care of children."

The needs and demands of children can be overwhelming even for mentally healthy parents, much less those struggling to cope with depression.

"A parent who's depressed may not arrange an appointment with a teacher; may not have time to go; may not listen to the child; and may not find some solution to problems so that it lingers," says Weissman.

But, there is a silver lining: Depression is extremely treatable. Weissman has done numerous studies, including one that focused on depressed mothers. "We showed that at the end of three months, if mom got better, the children got better," she says.

The women who recovered from depression got interested in their children once again and were more loving and able to show it. Weissman says she heard from children themselves that their mom "just loves me more and listens to me."

She and others have found that psychotherapy or medication alone or a combination of the two can be effective treatments, she says.

Unfortunately, clinical depression is common, and a large number of adults can be expected to suffer a serious episode at some point in their lives. But even if you've inherited a propensity to depression, Weissman says, you can get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible, to good effect.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Another reason to get help for depression, it may improve your kids' report cards. A study out of Sweden finds children whose parents are depressed have lower grades. As Patti Neighmond reports now, if the parents get treatment, the children's schoolwork improves.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Researchers looked at over 1 million children born in Sweden over a 10-year period. They analyzed their performance in school and their parent's mental health. Felice Le-Scherban is a researcher and epidemiologist at Drexel University.

FELICE LE-SCHERBAN: We found that parent depression was related to lower school performance among children at the age of 16.

NEIGHMOND: And that was true for children with depressed fathers as well as children with depressed mothers.

LE-SCHERBAN: Children of mothers who'd experience depression on average scored about 4.5 percentage points lower in their school grades than children of non-depressed mothers. And this was about 4 percentage points for children who had depressed fathers.

NEIGHMOND: Now, four, four and a half points may not sound like a lot. But ask any high school student in today's competitive world, and they'll tell you it can be the difference between an A or a B or a D and a C.

LE-SCHERBAN: Which can mean a lot for a student and, in this country, can mean a lot for things like college admission, for example.

NEIGHMOND: And poor performance in school is worrisome, she says, because a good education makes a difference well beyond school years.

LE-SCHERBAN: Education is one of the strongest predictors of health and life expectancy that we have.

NEIGHMOND: Studies show better-educated individuals are less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or be obese. They have lower risk of heart disease and diabetes. So anything that puts children on less than a level playing field, says Le-Scherban, puts them at a big disadvantage. Unfortunately, depression is common. Over 1 in 10 adults is expected to suffer depression at some point in their lives. Epidemiologist Myrna Weissman at Columbia University Medical Center says there are many reasons why depressed parents can have hard time nurturing their children.

MYRNA WEISSMAN: Think about the symptoms of depression. It produces feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, loss of energy, loss of interest in things that usually give you pleasure, problems with sleep, anxiety, agitation. And think about having those symptoms and trying to take care of children.

NEIGHMOND: With all the needs and demands that even a mentally healthy parent might find overwhelming, add to that the extra effort often needed today to advocate for your child in school.

WEISSMAN: A parent who's depressed may not arrange an appointment with the teacher, may not have time to go, may not listen to the child and may not find some solution to this problem so that it lingers, and the problems get worse.

NEIGHMOND: There is a silver lining. Depression is extremely treatable. Weissman's done numerous studies looking at treatment, including one that focused on depressed mothers.

WEISSMAN: And we showed that at the end of three months, if mom got better, the children got better.

NEIGHMOND: Life literally got back to normal. Mothers got interested in their children once again and were more loving and able to show it.

WEISSMAN: A child has said, you know, my mom just loves me more and pays attention. And we've had children report that; my mother is more affectionate. She listens to me.

NEIGHMOND: In the study, mothers were treated with antidepressants. Weissman says psychotherapy alone or a combination of medication and psychotherapy can be just as effective. Depression is hereditary. You can't change genes, notes Weissman, but you can get people diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.