Background: Studies of depressed mothers have generally been conducted in psychiatric settings with non-minority, middle-class women. Primary care has an increasing role in early detection and treatment, especially for the poor who have less access to specialized mental health services. Data on the relationship between maternal depression and problems in the offspring in a primary care context could help physicians to more effectively identify children in need of psychiatric help.
Methods: All mothers aged 25 to 55 from a systematic sample of consecutive adults (response rate, 80%) in an urban general medicine practice were screened using the PRIME-MD Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ). Mothers who screened positive for major depression (n=85); other psychiatric disorders, but not major depression (n=67); or no psychiatric disorders (n=191) were compared on their children's history of emotional problems, unmet need for mental health treatment, parent-child discord, maternal functional status and mental health treatment.
Results: Compared to non-psychiatric controls, depressed mothers reported a three-times greater risk of serious emotional problems in their children (95% confidence interval [CI], 1.7-6.1); a four-times greater risk of having their children's problems left untreated (95% CI, 2.3-8.2), and a 10-times greater risk of having poor mother-child relations within the past month (95% CI, 3.9-29.4). Depressed mothers reported more functional disability, more psychiatric treatment and more problems in their offspring than mothers with non-depressive psychiatric disorders. Although a majority of mothers (regardless of psychiatric status) believed that counseling (96%) or medication (84%) should be offered to those with serious emotional problems, only about half (49%) of the depressed mothers had received mental health treatment in the past month.
Limitations: Children were not assessed directly.
Conclusions: The children of low-income depressed women at a general medicine practice were reported to have a greatly increased risk for emotional problems. Many mothers had not received treatment for their own emotional problems. By enquiring about the emotional health of children of adult primary care patients, primary care providers have an opportunity to promote early detection and to facilitate appropriate treatment for both the mothers and their children.