While depression's affect on an individual has been studied and observed, depression's affect on a family has been largely anecdotal, until now. According to a study done in Sweden, kids grades can suffer if a parent is depressed. These results are only the latest evidence that we desperately need to destigmatize mental illness and receiving treatment for mental illness.
The study, carried out by researchers at Drexel University and published in JAMA Psychiatry this February, collected information on the grades and home lives of more than one million Swedish children between 1984 and 1994. Most notably, the study found that having a depressed parent had a quantifiable effect on a child's school performance. Researchers measured a 4.5 point grade difference for those students whose mothers were suffering from depression. Students whose fathers were depressed had grades that were about 4 points lower, on average. According to The Philly Voice, the study found that the most affected relationship was between a mother and her daughter, suggesting that girls are distressed by a parent's mental illness more acutely and more onerously than boys are.
But what exactly is the correlation between a parent's mental state and his or her child's grades? Myrna Weissman, epidemiologist at Columbia University Medical Center, told NPR that depression can hinder a parent's ability to be active in his or her child's life. "Just think about the symptoms of depression," she said. "The feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, loss of energy, interest in things that usually give you pleasure. And think about having those symptoms and trying to take care of children."
Parenting is taxing, and these days parents are being asked to be increasingly engaged in their child's school life. So, what happens when they're suffering from depression? Weissman said,
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.
The students examined in the study were 16 years old. Educational success is important at any age, but it can be particularly influential during those teenage years. A child's engagement in school determines his or her post-graduation path, lifestyle, and even his or her health as an adult. While the immediate effects of depression on a child and on a family were measurable, researchers also found that, when parents sought treatment, their children also improved.
Besides connecting parental mental health and child engagement, this study provides very strong evidence for the need to decrease stigma around mental illness and the treatment of mental illness. When mental health resources are not only made available, but are encouraged for parents (without parents being penalized with higher insurance premiums, for example), the entire family sees benefits well into the future. With treatment, children can get the attention and affection they need to feel motivated in the classroom, and parents can get the medical care that might save their lives.