Many studies have assessed the risk of depression in the mothers of infants, but fewer studies have focused on the risk of depression in the mothers with older children.

This is one of the few – and certainly the largest – study to explore the risk of depression in mothers of older children, utilizing data from a nationally representative sample of 7,211 fathers and mothers living in households with children aged 5-17 years.  These families were participants in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) between the years of 2004 and 2006.  The Patient Health Questionnaire-2 (PHQ-2) was used to assess parental depressive symptoms, and the Short Form-12 (SF-12) was used to examine paternal and maternal physical health.

About 17% of the mothers screened positive for depression, suggesting that the mothers of older children are just as vulnerable to depression as the mothers of infants.

The following factors were associated with increased risk of maternal depression:

  • Maternal unemployment (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 1.76)
  • Poor maternal physical health (AOR = 2.31)
  • Living with a child with behavioral or emotional problems (AOR = 2.95)
  • Paternal depressive symptoms (AOR = 5.11)

The last one on the list – paternal depressive symptoms – is the most concerning.  Not only does depression in the father seem to exert the strongest effect on the mother’s risk for depression, but having two depressed parents places the child at much higher risk for behavioral and emotional problems than when only the mother is depressed.  While we have placed such an emphasis on screening for postpartum depression, this study suggests that perhaps we should cast a wider net, perhaps screening all women with children for depression.

Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD

Rosenthal DG, Learned N, Liu YH, Weitzman M.  Characteristics of Mothers with Depressive Symptoms Outside the Postpartum Period. Matern Child Health J. 2012 Aug 10.