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Maternal Depression Can Affect Children, & It Shows Why We Must Stop Stigma

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Even though depression is remarkably common, especially in conjunction with big life changes like having a baby, there is still a marked stigma that prevents people from seeking adequate treatment. New research indicates that, for moms who aren't able to identify and access treatment for their depression, there could be lasting impacts on their kids' brains. Babies of moms with depression are more at-risk for social-emotional problems, and it shows why we must stop the stigma that maternal mental illness carries.

Depression is a term that actually encompasses many different conditions, but what we generally mean when we say "depression" is a persistent feeling of sadness, or often apathy, that interferes with a person's day-to-day life. According to the World Health Organization, 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, but many of them will never receive treatment. In the U.S., 90 percent of those who reported experiencing depression said it made it harder for them to participate in activities at home, school, and work. Yet only one-third reported seeking help from a mental health professional for their symptoms, according to the CDC. Across every age group, women had higher rates of depression than men, with the highest rate (12.3 percent) being among women aged 40 to 59.

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One type of depression that is commonly experienced by women after they give birth is called postpartum depression, which affects more than 3 million women a year. Because it's related to motherhood, PPD has a particular kind of stigma attached to it that is extremely detrimental to both moms and babies. When society implies that women who have mental illness are inherently "bad mothers" or that they're fundamentally incapable of raising their children, it only further isolates them from the information and resources that can help them cope.

Depression in general results from a combination of genetic, environmental, and biochemical factors. While many of the symptoms of depression are "emotional," they can also be physical, and they arise from many not-yet-fully-understood neurological underpinnings. That is, stuff happening in the brain both on a structural level, and at the level of nerve function. Depression — whatever form it takes — is not anyone's fault, and while a person can't control if they are genetically prone to depression, or have experienced a traumatic event, they should be encouraged, and supported, to seek out treatment.

It's often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but the process is a lot more complex than that. Those who experience hormonal fluctuations, like those of the menstrual cycle or pregnancy, can be particularly susceptible to depression because of the little-understood interplay. According to the CDC, as many as 1 in 8 women will experience Postpartum Depression — and many don't have a history of mental illness.

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While researchers have been studying the prevalence of depression in women for many years, until recently they hadn't been looking at the longterm effects maternal depression might have kids' social development. New research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry revealed that maternal depression actually impacted the development of children's brains on a neurological level. The study followed mother-child pairs over the course of a decade, where the mother had chronic depression. Researchers found that as the children grew up, they were more likely to have social-emotional problems such as being withdrawn, having a hard time regulating themselves socially, and a decreased ability to empathize with others.

The latter was determined by examining the child's neural processing over the course of the study, revealing that the brains of children with mothers suffering from depression stopped processing others' pain earlier in life than children whose mothers weren't depressed.

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The study also found that mothers with depression tended to interact with their children in less consistent ways, leading researchers to see them as being "out of step" with each other. Psychologists have known for a long time that we develop empathy in large part because of our interactions with our parents, or primary caregivers, when we're very small. Interruptions in this crucial developmental process have major implications for a child's social development, especially where it concerns responding to other people.

An important thing to note about this study, however, is that, while the women were all experiencing depression, they weren't facing other socioeconomic challenges that can make not just dealing with mental illness, but parenting in general, more complicated: the women in the study were living above the poverty line, had completed high school, and were all partnered.

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If the results of this study implied such negative impacts on the development of children's brains when they weren't also facing these other common socioeconomic barriers, the risks for those who are would be even higher. The risks for moms with depression are greater, too; without access to mental health treatment, either because they don't have insurance or lack the social supports, the ability to find treatment for depression that works is pretty bleak.

For those with social support and access, the social stigma attached to depression is still so strong that it often discourages them from seeking help, and even acknowledging their depression in the first place. As this latest study shows, though, the ramifications of untreated depression — not just for individuals, but entire families — are very real.

The results of this study make the implications of disparity in access to mental health treatment and the associated stigma even more vital to address. While children of depressed parents might inherit a genetic predisposition to the condition, they don't necessarily have to inherit the attitudes about depression that would prevent them from seeking treatment.