Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Moms' mental health studied

Between two and five, kids risk picking up mother's depression

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OTTAWA -- Ian Colman went looking to see whether a mother's postpartum depression makes her child more likely to be depressed later. He was off by a couple of years.

Postpartum depression does raise a child's risk, he found. But more important is whether a mother suffers from depression when her child is between ages two and five.

Preschoolers whose mothers are depressed are twice as likely to become depressed themselves in their teens. It was a surprise, but he thinks knowing this can help prevent teenage depression.

Colman is an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa. He has a Canada Research Chair and specializes in the mental health of teenagers.

"We were looking at what's happening really early in a child's life that might put them at risk for mental health problems later on," he said.

"We really thought it was postpartum depression that was going to have this effect."

He found plenty of work already done on postpartum depression in mothers. But there wasn't much information on the effects of a mother's depression later in a child's life.

Since 1994, Statistics Canada has run a survey called the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, following thousands of young people every two years. It covers everything from their health and nutrition to family and school life. It was fodder for his study.

It showed that although postpartum depression has some effect, the crucial question is whether the mother only becomes depressed when her child is between two and five years old. Much of the work showing this came from a junior researcher in his lab, Kiyuri Naicker.

It makes sense, Colman says.

"It's just a really influential time in the child's development. They're learning to communicate, learning to act with others... and really just understand the world around them," he said.

"Their brain is going through really rapid change. Parents, especially mothers, are critical in helping the child navigate through all that change.

"If mom, who the child has previously bonded with, is now depressed, the child may experience this new distance as a type of loss. And I think for a young child, losing the relationship with their mother is about the biggest type of loss they can suffer."

A second crucial time is when the child enters puberty, with all its uncertainty.

"If their mother is depressed at that time, that doubles the risk that the adolescents will be depressed as well."

Knowing about the fragile time for toddlers is useful for preventing depression, Colman believes.

"It's really important to encourage parents, if they're really struggling, to seek help. Help is available. Antidepressants are effective (and) there are psychological therapies... that are very strongly supported by evidence."

In a group of 937 children studied from the first year of life, Statistics Canada found 38 per cent -- nearly two in five -- had a mother who suffered depression before the child reached age 12.

"It shows that this is a huge burden for Canada," Colman said.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 ??65505

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