Family disruption in childhood and risk of adult depression

Am J Psychiatry. 2003 May;160(5):939-46. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.5.939.


Objective: The authors examined the risk that family disruption and low socioeconomic status in early childhood confer on the onset of major depression in adulthood.

Method: Participants were 1,104 offspring of mothers enrolled during pregnancy in the Providence, R.I., site of the National Collaborative Perinatal Project. Measures of childhood family disruption and socioeconomic status were obtained before birth and at age 7. Structured diagnostic interviews were used to assess respondents' lifetime history of major depressive episode between the ages of 18 and 39. Survival analysis was used to identify childhood risks for depression onset.

Results: Parental divorce in early childhood was associated with a higher lifetime risk of depression among subjects whose mothers did not remarry as well as among subjects whose mothers remarried. These effects were more pronounced when accompanied by high levels of parental conflict. Independent of the respondents' adult socioeconomic status, low socioeconomic status in childhood predicted an elevated risk of depression.

Conclusions: Family disruption and low socioeconomic status in early childhood increase the long-term risk for major depression. Reducing childhood disadvantages may be one avenue for prevention of depression. Identification of modifiable pathways linking aspects of the early childhood environment to adult mental health is needed to mitigate the long-term consequences of childhood disadvantage.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Divorce*
  • Employment
  • Family Relations*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marital Status
  • Occupations
  • Prevalence
  • Prospective Studies
  • Rhode Island / epidemiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Class
  • Socioeconomic Factors*
  • Spouses / psychology
  • Spouses / statistics & numerical data
  • Survival Analysis