Depression in Parents, Parenting and Children Report Looks at Interventions to Help Families and Children

Depression affects roughly 7.5 million parents—about one in five—in the United States annually. About 15.6 million children under 18 live with an adult who has had major depression in the past year, according to a report by the National Research Council (NRC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM). This report, Depression in Parents, Parenting and Children: Opportunities to Improve Identification, Treatment, and Prevention (National Academies Press, 2009) was prepared by a committee convened from 2007 to 2009 by the NRC-IOM Board on Children, Youth, and Families.

Despite broad recognition that parental depression has had a serious impact on child health and development, "there was a real absence in the field of strategies that could address parental functioning and preventive interventions for their children, especially very young children," said Mary Jane England, MD, president of Regis College, who chaired the study committee.

To address that shortcoming, the interdisciplinary Committee on Depression, Parenting Practices, and the Healthy Development of Children examined the incidence and treatment of parental depression, especially among underserved populations. The committee also identified strategies to foster best-practice interventions in settings that engage at-risk families, such as community health centers, pediatric practices, Head Start and the federal Women, Infants, and Children program.

Key Results

As part of its fact-gathering efforts, the committee:

  • Conducted a comprehensive review of studies on depression among parents and the effects on their children; commissioned six papers analyzing the research and findings; and held five formal meetings that included presentations from experts
  • Convened a public workshop to explore strategies and programs to provide mental health and child development services to families; it was attended by 70 providers, community leaders, representatives from health plans and others working with underserved populations
  • Visited two residential centers providing treatment to women for substance abuse, one in Boston and one in Pomona, Calif., to gather information on programs that integrate a number of services for parents, including those that address mental health

Key Findings

The committee's report includes the following findings, among others:

  • Parental depression can affect the physical, psychological and behavioral health and development of children at all ages.
  • Community and clinical settings that serve adults at higher risk for depression do not routinely screen for depression. Settings that do provide such screening usually do not consider whether adults are parents and, therefore, do not consider the impact of their mental health on their children.
  • Emerging preventive interventions for families with depressed parents show promise, but studies of the effectiveness of those interventions are limited.
  • Services for depressed parents would ideally strengthen and support parent-child relationships, offer treatment and prevention services for children and provide comprehensive resources and referrals for problems linked to depression, such as substance abuse and trauma.
  • Such services should be culturally and linguistically sensitive and available in multiple health care settings.