Depression in Families: Treating Mothers, Helping Children

Depression in Families: Treating Mothers, Helping Children

Posted: March 1, 2013

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From The Quarterly, Winter 2013

On September 14, 2012 the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation hosted a Women’s Mental Health Conference: The Art & Science of Caring in New York City. The event included a panel discussion on Early Intervention, Rehabilitation and Reintegration; small group discussions with leading researchers across mental illnesses; and a final panel discussion on overcoming stigma and the future of public policy and research. The following pages contain highlights of some of the presentations. Full transcripts of the talks and a highlight video are available at

Depression in Families: Treating Mothers, Helping Children

Myrna M. Weissman, Ph.D.

1991, 2000 and 2005 NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grantee

Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

Depression appears to run in families. To examine this tendency and its significance for preventing and treating depression, Dr. Weissman and her colleagues have been conducting a long-term study of parents, mostly mothers, with moderate to severe depression, and the effect of their illness on their children and grandchildren. The major finding of this 30-year investigation, now extending into the third and even fourth generations, is that offspring of depressed parents have a two- to six-fold greater risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders than the offspring of non-depressed parents.

A more recent phase of research that Dr. Weissman led is the children’s portion of a study conducted at 7 sites across the country exploring the question of whether children of depressed mothers benefit from a remission of the mother’s depression. Not surprisingly, when this research was initiated, it was observed that a third of the children of the families participating in the study were actively ill with a brain and behavior disorder at the time of recruitment and half had a lifetime history of mental illness.

All the mothers in the study were treated with the antidepressant citalopram (trade name Celexa®). After three months, about a third of them experienced at least a 50 percent reduction in symptoms, and when the mothers remitted, there was an 11 percent overall decrease in the children’s diagnoses. Children of the mothers who did not get better had an 8 percent overall increase in illness. Of the children who were ill at the time of entry in the study, 33 percent got better if their mothers got better, but only 12 percent of those children whose mothers did not remit got better. All the children without a diagnosis at baseline remained well if their mothers got better, but 17 percent got ill if their mothers did not improve. A follow-up study using three different antidepressants yielded the same results.

While depression is generally believed to have a genetic base, the genes involved are as yet unknown. However, as Dr. Weissman’s findings have helped to demonstrate, environment is critically important in triggering symptoms. The research she and her group conduct is providing clinical data for identifying the offspring of depressed parents as a particularly vulnerable population. The research also provides the encouraging information that if a family can be kept in remission, its offspring have a better chance of staying well.