Depression in the family
© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD
Beth posted, “As someone who has battled clinical depression since childhood, and whose husband has many of the same issues, I’m very curious about the risks my children face in this area. How much more likely are they to suffer from depression?”
Depression, as well as other mental illnesses, do run in families. The population risk of major depression—that is, the risk that someone will have depression at least once during their life—is probably about 5-10%. Add in the risk of an anxiety disorder, and you’ve probably got a lifetime risk in the 10-15% range. With one parent with problems with anxiety or depression, the risk for their children is about doubled, to 20-30%; with both parents, it’s somewhat higher than that (I couldn’t find an exact number.) So you’re right to be concerned about the risk in your kids.
We do know that there is more than genetics at work, though. Depression and anxiety are also influenced by environmental factors, including early childhood trauma, and exposure to parents and other loved ones with mental illness. If you and your husband are being successfully treated for depression, it should reduce your own children’s risk—because they’re being raised by parents without symptoms (or with reduced symptoms) of mental illness.
The diagnosis of depression and anxiety disorders in children may be more difficult because kids do not necessarily have the same symptoms. While adults have anhedonia (lack of joy), children will more typically have irritability or chronic unexplained pain, trouble sleeping, or trouble with peers and in school.
If you’re worried about symptoms of mental illness in your kids, please bring them to your pediatrician. Be open about your own history of these problems. That can help the doctor come up with the best diagnosis. Though your kids are at elevated risk, that’s not to say that they’ll definitely—or even probably—have problems like these.