Mental health problems a family affair

24 Jul 2018

Children experiencing mental health problems who have parents with psychiatric symptoms are at higher risk of poorer mental health outcomes, according to a University of Queensland researcher.

The study found that families with multiple members experiencing mental health problems should receive more intensive treatment in order to achieve better outcomes for their children.

Child Health Research Centre Professor Christel Middeldorp said the study assessed children attending a psychiatric outpatient clinic.  

“We looked at the psychopathology of the child’s parents to see if we could predict outcomes of childhood mental illness,” Dr Middeldorp said.

“Childhood psychopathology includes disorders like ADHD, anxiety, depression and behavioural problems.

“Children of parents who reported psychiatric symptoms themselves had more symptoms when first assessed than children of parents without symptoms.”

The children were assessed on average more than a year later.  

“Both groups of children showed improvement in their symptoms at the time of follow-up,” Dr Middeldorp said.

“But the symptoms of the children exposed to parental mental health illness remained more severe, potentially because of the ongoing association with the parental symptoms.

“Offering parents treatment for their symptoms while their children are being treated may be one way to break the cycle.”

Dr Middeldorp stressed that the findings did not imply a direct link between parental symptoms and their children’s symptoms.

“We do not know whether the children’s scores remain higher simply because of the parental psychopathology,” she said.  

“It could be that the whole family is in a stressful environment which is maintaining both the parental symptoms as well as the child’s symptoms.”

An earlier study of the same group showed that these families more often live in adverse circumstances, such as where there is parental unemployment or in single parent families.

“Parental symptoms may also be influenced by the child’s symptoms.”

The study is published in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent.

Media: Professor Christel Middeldorp, email, phone; Faculty of Medicine, med.media@uq.edu.au , +61 7 3365 5118.

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