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A Mental Health Safety Net for Moms and Kids

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February 3, 2012

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Mothers who suffer from depression often pass it on to their children. A grant just awarded to a New Haven consortium - one of 10 awards nationwide - promises to address the mental-health needs of both mothers and children.

MOMS - Mental Health Outreach for Mothers - received the five-year, $2.5 million federal grant to provide services to mothers, especially low-income and African-American moms who often experience high levels of stress.

Megan V. Smith, an assistant professor in Yale School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and principal investigator for the grant who is leading the effort, says the problem has a clear generational impact.

"Rates of depression in school-age and adolescent children of mothers who are depressed have been reported to be somewhere between 20 and 40 percent, which is in contrast to a general population with a rate of about 2 percent in children 12 and younger."

She says the overall rate of depression in teenagers of around 15 percent is still lower than it is for teens living with a depressed parent.

Through outreach efforts, 500 women already have been identified who will benefit from the program. Smith says the impact on family members will multiply that number.

"So when you think about getting the most bang for our buck in public health, we can do this by preventing mental illness in parents, treating mental illness that does exist, in order to prevent this intergenerational transmission of mental illness."

Women are at higher risk because of factors such as care-giving responsibilities, women's higher rates of poverty, and their vulnerability to sexual abuse and interpersonal violence. Smith says future research will focus directly on the children of these mothers.

"We are evaluating the outcomes of our intervention on children, so we're looking at measures, for example, of maternal sensitivity and attachment, reports of parenting stress, and we're hoping that eventually, with further funding, we'll look at the children as well and do interventions with the children of the mothers."

Early intervention, she says, can keep children from needing intensive treatment later on and help them steer clear of the juvenile justice system.

Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service - CT