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New Study Sheds Light On Depression In Teens And Parents


There are estimates that 13 percent of adolescents in the United States experience at least one episode of major depression. That depression can be treated in teens. And new research suggests that it helps not just them but also their parents. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: We tend to think of depression as affecting individuals, but Myrna Weissman says...

MYRNA WEISSMAN: Depression is a family affair.

CHATTERJEE: Weissman is a professor of psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. And she's studied depression in families for years.

WEISSMAN: We know that there's high rates of depression in the offspring of depressed mothers.

CHATTERJEE: Weissman's previous work has shown that when mothers are treated for depression, their children feel better, as well. That led another researcher, Kelsey Howard, to wonder, could the opposite be true?

KELSEY HOWARD: So if kids get better, do parents then feel better? And we found that to be true, as well.

CHATTERJEE: Howard is a graduate student at the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University. To answer her question, she and her graduate adviser analyzed data from a previous study that followed more than 300 teenagers getting treatment for depression either through counseling or pills or both. Before and during the course of the study, the researchers had also surveyed one parent of each teenager for symptoms of depression. When Howard looked at that data, she found that...

WEISSMAN: Approximately a quarter of our parents were experiencing pretty high levels of depression.

CHATTERJEE: That was before the kids started treatment. But as the children's treatment progressed, Howard found that the parents began to feel better, too. She says the results make sense.

HOWARD: We're social creatures. And so we exist in families. We exist in social networks. And a lot of our well-being, a lot of our highs and lows might come from these relationships.

CHATTERJEE: When a parent sees their child struggle, it might affect their mood. And when the child feels better, their spirits lift, as well. Howard presented her research at the American Psychological Association's annual conference in San Francisco.

Judy Garber is a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. She wasn't involved in the new study and cautions that this doesn't prove that children's treatment causes the improvement in parents' mental health. However, she says the results are encouraging.

JUDY GARBER: It's very promising that there are changes in parents' depression when the kids are getting better. I think that's great.

CHATTERJEE: Garber says the study is a reminder to parents to take their own mental health seriously, especially if their child is struggling.

GARBER: If your child is having depression or other kinds of problem, I would certainly think that parents might examine their own mental state and see if there's anything going on for them that they might need some help with, as well.

CHATTERJEE: Because help for one family member could help others, too. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.


Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.