Formerly depressed adolescents with depressed parents tend to experience severe depression as adults more often than those with mentally healthy parents, according to a study published in the August issue of APA's Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Vol. 114, No. 3). Mothers' mental health may play an especially important role in the prognosis for once-depressed adolescents, according to study author Paul Rohde, PhD, a psychologist and senior research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute.
Paternal depression also plays a role in determining the course of an adolescent's depression, Rohde says. Depressed male teenagers with depressed fathers are seven times more likely to attempt suicide as young adults than depressed male teenagers with unaffected fathers, the study found.
Rohde and his colleagues recruited 244 adolescents who had previously experienced at least one major depressive episode. The researchers performed a semistructured clinical interview, assessing the severity of the adolescents' depression, including the length of the most recent depressive episode, its intensity and how much it interfered with the adolescents' lives. Rohde and his colleagues repeated the assessment a year after the initial interview and again when each participant was 24 years old.
The researchers also interviewed the parents of the participants and noted whether they met clinical criteria for depression.
The results: Depressed teenagers growing up with depressed parents tended to have more frequent and severe depressive episodes as young adults than those with mentally healthy parents. Moreover, maternal depression may have a larger overall effect on children's mental health, but paternal depression also plays a role, Rohde says.
"Depressed fathers are an especially important risk factor for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts," says Rohde. "But we do not know why."
While the study raises more questions than it answers, it could lead to at least one practical application: Those who direct suicide-prevention programs may want to target male teenagers with depressed fathers, he notes.
The researchers plan to follow the population as they age to learn more about the course of their depression.