Diagnosing Mom's depression

Study shows that pediatricians should ask about mothers' health, too.

Published July 6, 2006 8:27PM (EDT)

Here's a hopeful sign that expectant mothers may have a chance to learn about postpartum depression from a source other than that Tom Cruise-Brooke Shields tiff. Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported on a new study that found that a few questions from their pediatricians can help depressed moms get treatment.

This may seem like it belongs in the Department of Duh, but the Globe points out that pediatricians generally focus on the health of the baby, not the mother. So the whopping 10 percent of mothers who are estimated to be depressed may not get diagnosed. The study, which was published last month in the journal Pediatrics, found that pediatricians who ask a mom two quick questions -- whether she has lost interest and pleasure in doing things lately and whether she has been feeling down -- made a big difference in identifying the disorder.

Pediatricians have reason to be concerned, too; as the Globe notes, recent research suggests that the children of depressed parents are three times more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, addiction and even heart disease when they're older. And when the mothers felt better, the kids improved within three months. In fact, the research is so compelling it "screams" for pediatricians to get involved in treating parents' depression, Dr. Myrna Weissman, a psychiatry professor from Columbia University who led the studies, told the Globe.

More research shows that infants whose mothers are emotionally withdrawn may experience negative feelings, such as sadness and anger, and may even develop slowly. And the moms suffer, too, from both the depression and from guilt that they may have hurt their own children. To help families cope, Dr. William Beardslee, academic chairman of the psychiatry department at Children's Hospital Boston, suggests mothers tell their kids the following: "This is a medical illness, a biological illness, I'm getting treatment, and your life will be able to continue. This is not your fault, and you're not to blame, even though it's very confusing."

Depression is confusing, and neither mothers nor infants are to blame. It's heartening to know the medical community is recommending another measure to help battle this insidious affliction -- especially one as easy and intuitive as a doctor asking, "How are you?"

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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