What If Mom Is Depressed?

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Dr. Steve Grcevich explains the risk factors for kids when parents are depressed and encourages the local church to help the entire family.

What happens to the kids when a parent is struggling with depression?

Consider for a moment the impact upon kids when a parent is depressed…

According to an Institute of Medicine report, 15 million children in the U.S. are living with a depressed parent at any given point in time.

Having a depressed parent is a significant risk factor for depression in kids. Kids are three times more likely to develop depression when they have a depressed parent. That observation seems intuitive, but research suggests that genetics only contributes 30-40% of the risk of depression. Other factors clearly come into play…the availability of the child’s other parent, the temperament of the child, the interplay between environmental influences and genetic expression, birth weight (lower weight conveys greater risk), age of menarche (early puberty associated with greater risk), the nature of parent-child interactions, family systems issues and exposure to adverse life events. Risk factors also work both ways…the experience of having a child with special needs may increase risk of depression in parents.

Children of parents with depression (especially boys) are also at greater risk of developing other internalizing disorders (anxiety), externalizing disorders (ADHD, disruptive behavior disorders), cognitive delays, medical problems, lower than expected academic performance and social delays.

Another interesting aspect of our discussion about depression involves the research suggesting that church attendance results in a significant decrease in depression symptoms among children and youth, and in turn, church attendance among adults appears to significantly reduce their risk of depression as well. The research findings examining the relationship between faith, spiritual practice and depression are very complex and probably merit several posts upon completion of this series. But for the sake of this discussion, it appears that in examining depression as a specific disability, regular involvement of either the child or the parent with depression at church not only produces spiritual benefits, but actually helps reduce the risk for the condition itself.

Therefore, an argument can be made that it’s very important to get the entire family to church if any member of that family is affected by depression. So, what can the local church or individuals from the local church do to help mom (or dad) and the entire family?

Be proactive about inviting friends and neighbors to church (with their families) who are struggling from depression and the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that frequently accompany the condition. Given the numbers of persons being treated for depression…over 20% of  women in the U.S. regularly take prescription medication used to treat depression, nearly all of us are likely to know several friends or colleagues being treated for depression.

Establish inclusive weekend ministry environments where the children of parents with depression (at greater risk themselves for “hidden disabilities”) can experience the love of Christ.

Be on the lookout for families who are irregular attenders, or families who have been regulars but are absent for weeks at a time. Follow up with them. Just be with them. Offer to serve them. Avoid the mistake that Job’s friends made in assuming that his condition was related to punishment for sin or some lack of faith.

Support the involvement of organizations and ministries that offer care and support to families impacted by depression. Mental Health Grace Alliance is an outstanding organization now in eight states offering “Grace Groups” to provide ongoing Christ- centered support and practical tools to help navigate life with any mental illness, including depression. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has an ongoing outreach to faith communities. Research indicates that many persons with chronic depression may have experienced negative interactions with church leaders when seeking help for their condition. The church may need to go above and beyond to restore relationships in light of past hurts.

It would appear to me that God would use afflictions such as depression to help those He loves to draw closer to Him. The church is obligated to be obedient by doing everything possible to help those suffering from depression by pointing them to the path and by keeping the path as smooth as possible.

Dr. Steve Grcevich is a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry who serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry. He blogs at church4everychild.org and may be reached at steve@keyministry.org.



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