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An estimated 12.8 percent of adolescents in the US have at least one episode of major depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. According to previous studies, the mental health of many teenagers is associated with depression in their parents.
But new research suggests that this parental effect has a downside: treating teenagers for depression also improves their parents' mental health.
We tend to consider depression as individuals. But Myrna Weissman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says, "Depression is a family affair."
Weissman spent years studying depression in families. "We know depression in children with depressive mothers is high," she says.
And their previous work has shown that mothers, when treated for depression, also feel better.
These findings led another researcher, Kelsey Howard, to wonder if the opposite is the case-as children improve, do parents feel better?
Howard, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and her adviser Mark Reinecke analyzed data from a 2008 study in which more than 300 adolescents were depressed over the course of about nine months to answer their question were either through counseling, medication or both.
Before and During During the course of this study, researchers also interviewed one parent of each teenager for symptoms of depression. The data showed that about a quarter of parents experienced depression before the children started treatment, says Howard, who presented their findings at the American Psychological Association's annual conference in San Francisco on Saturday.
"We have found that the symptoms of parental depression have improved over the course of the study," she says. She found that this improvement was due to the fact that the children themselves felt better over time.
Howard says the results make sense.
"We are social beings," she says. "We exist in families, we exist in social networks, and much of our well-being, many of our ups and downs, could come from these relationships."
If a parent sees how his child is struggling, it could affect his mood; As the child feels better, her moods also lift. Improving the mental health of the child could also improve parent-child communication, which could also improve parents' depression.
The findings may help healthcare providers cope with the high rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among adolescents, Howard notes.
Judy Garber, psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved in the new study, warns that the findings do not prove that changes in parents' mental health are a direct impact of improving children. There may be other disruptive factors that this study has not investigated, she notes.
Nevertheless, she says, the results are encouraging. "It's very promising that there will be depression in the parents when the kids get better, and I think that's great."
Garber says the findings may remind parents to take their own mental health seriously, especially when a child is struggling.
"If your child has depression or other kinds of problems, I would certainly think that the parents examine their own mental condition and see if anything is going on for them, that they may need help," she says ,
Because help for a family member could help others too.