It runs in the family: Treating child’s depression can help relieve parents’ symptoms

CHICAGO — As depression rates rise, standard tools for treatment may prove inadequate. Recent research addresses this emerging issue head-on, offering a new solution to cases of depression that seem to have genetic ties. Depressed teens, the new study finds, can improve both their and their parents’ depression by seeking therapy — even if they’re the only one to receive help.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois recently completed a two-year clinical trial with 325 depressed teenagers and their parents, in which only the former group received treatment. Teens received one of three types of intervention: antidepressants, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of the two.

Despite being child-based, the researchers found that parents also benefited from therapy — in near-equal measure. This mirrored effect was observed regardless of the treatment protocol used.

“More young people today are reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness and suicidal thoughts,” explains Kelsey R. Howard, the study’s lead researcher, in a statement discussing today’s burgeoning rates of depression.  “At the same time, suicide rates have climbed in nearly all U.S. states. This research may help health care providers as we grapple as a nation with how to address these alarming trends.”

In all fairness, only a fourth of parents reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression at the study’s outset, making for a relatively small sample size. Still, the effect measured more than met the criteria to be considered statistically valid; thus, it can help clinicians in devising new treatment approaches.

“Depression is a massive public health concern that will take a variety of approaches to better manage,” says Dr. Mark A. Reinecke, the study’s co-author. “We believe our study is among the first to evaluate how the emotional health of a child can impact that of the parent.”

Practically speaking, these findings could help professionals provide appropriate therapy for a given child— therapy that would take into account the child’s full scope of genetic and environmental influences. After all, we now have further evidence of how easily these factors can lead to depression.

“The concept of emotions being ‘contagious’ and spreading from person to person is well-known by psychologists,” Howard concludes. “This work opens up a range of possibilities for future research on the family-wide effects of treatment for adolescent depression.”

The researchers presented their findings at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention on August 11.