Depression in moms can lead to problems in their children, including anxiety, depression or disruptive behavior. But research has found that once the mother is treated, the rate of problems in her children drops significantly.
One of the best things a depressed woman can do to protect her kids is to get treatment for her depression. In a study that Weissman and her colleagues conducted as part of their longer-term research on depression, they found that once a mother's depression improved with treatment, her children's behavior and symptoms also significantly improved - with no treatment.
More than one-third of the children of depressed mothers in this study had a current psychiatric disorder - primarily anxiety, depressive or disruptive behavior disorders - and almost half had a past psychiatric disorder.
Once their mothers improved, however, the rate of psychiatric disorders in the children dropped 12 percent in three months, compared to a 6 percent increase in the rates of diagnosed disorders in children whose mothers didn't improve.
"At a time when there are many questions about the appropriate and safe treatment of psychiatric disorders in children, these findings suggest that it is important to provide vigorous treatment to mothers if they are depressed," Weissman and her colleagues noted.
Unfortunately, depressed women with children are less likely to seek treatment than depressed women without children. In her study, Weissman expected to see twice as many participating women with children as she did, given the rates of depression in this age group. Finding childcare, arranging transportation and even failing to recognize depression in themselves are all reasons mothers might not be getting the help they need, she says.
I didn't need Weissman or other researchers to tell me the potential effects of my depression. I could see it in my children's faces when I went into a rage, or was too tired or sad to do anything fun with them. A few weeks after what I still call the "vacuum cleaner" episode, I contacted my doctor and together we worked to readjust my medication. Two years later, after another major depressive episode, I added psychotherapy to the mix, a combination that studies find works better than either medication or therapy alone to treat serious depression.
Today, my kids are 20, 14 and 11. They're healthy - both mentally and physically - and doing great in all aspects of their lives (thanks, I'm sure, to my husband's fantastic parenting). But I still worry, particularly about the middle one and his short temper. Could it be a sign of an inherited rogue gene? Could it be the effects of my own depression?
To try and inoculate them against the effects of my depression, I've talked to them about my illness and their own risks. I also remain vigilant about not overdoing it (too much stress acts like a trigger for my depression) and continuing my own treatment. I still take medicine every day, still talk to a therapist once a week. It's expensive, but it's a small price to pay for both my own and my children's health.
Debra Gordon is a veteran health writer and editor.