Economic and Social Research Council
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Mental health problems for children of depressed parents not inevitable

Children whose parents have chronic or recurrent depression can have better resilience to tackling similar mental health problems in their own lives, a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council has shown.

Research by Cardiff University found that one in five children of depressed parents were in fact doing better than the children who had no experience of living with a depressed parent. It is hoped the findings will be used to help prevent other adolescents in similar situations from developing mental health problems themselves.

Over one million children in the UK have a parent with serious depression. Previous research has shown these young people are at least three times more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder themselves.

However this study, led by Dr Stephan Collishaw, has shown that poor outcomes are not inevitable - as over 60 out of the 300 high-risk children assessed had developed resilience, protecting them against poor mental health.

Five clear factors were all important:

  • Positivity of a depressed parent about their child
  • The emotional support provided by the other parent
  • The young person’s own confidence in tackling challenges
  • Good quality social relationships
  • Regular physical exercise.

"Crucially we discovered that resilience requires multiple protective factors to be present," explained Dr Collishaw.

"The presence of one or two of these factors is not sufficient on their own to make a difference. Rather, multiple protective factors - four or five - are required for high-risk children to be free of mental health problems."

The study, 'Psychosocial resilience in adolescent offspring of mothers with depression: testing causal mechanisms', assessed parents with 'recurrent major depressive disorder', co-parents, and their children (aged nine to 17 years) three times over four years in a community setting, using interview and questionnaire measures.

It is hoped that the findings, which were published in The Lancet Psychiatry, can be used to help introduce preventative interventions which can 'buffer' children who face high familial risk of mental health disorders such as depression.

"These findings have clear implications for families affected by parental depression. Not all parents with depression receive treatment, and not all treatment is successful," says Dr Collishaw.

"Moreover, depression is often chronic or recurrent. Understanding resilience is important because it can help in the design of effective preventative interventions."

"At present preventative interventions typically focus on specific mechanisms in isolation such as psychological therapies or social interventions. But we show that  interventions that enhance protective effects across multiple areas of children’s lives are needed."

Simple changes to existing interventions could have substantial benefits, for example, promoting frequent physical exercise, involving both parents in family-based interventions, and engaging with schools to help facilitate good social relationships.

Efforts should also focus on reaching at-risk children, for example via online psychoeducation. Fellow researchers at Cardiff University are currently developing and evaluating an online package to help with mood and wellbeing (and depression) in young people which they aim to roll out across health, education, social and youth services.

These research findings were presented in the most current issue of the ESRC magazine, Society Now.

Further information

Notes for editors

  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrated its 50th anniversary.


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