Mental illness is not only hard for the sufferer but can also impact surrounding family and friends. This is especially true for the children of mothers that experience depression. Research has been found that children in this position not only are more likely to gain mental health problems themselves but also face an increased risk of falling behind in their cognitive development.
Playing catch up
Fortunately, studies looking at children ranging from ages of nine months to 18 years old found it is possible to break this cycle. These included Syrian refugee families in Turkey and families with infants in Sweden and Bhutan. Overall, it was found that with very small changes, this correlation could be broken and the child could be caught up back to a normal level of development.
“If you improve the mental health of mothers by four percent, the child wins an entire year in their cognitive development, in statistical terms. Small measures, in other words, can make a big difference in supporting the next generation,” said Gustaf Gredebäck, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Uppsala University, who led the studies.
Community is key
The key factors for improved mental health for the mothers in all countries were having community and a number of people around to talk to and rely on. These simple and clear initiatives could make a world of difference to both the mothers and children at play in these situations.
Because of this idea of community, the country in which the family lived also had an impact on the mother. Gredebäck stated: “All the cultures have aspects that are positive. In Sweden, we have our individualistic environments. We have more gender equality, for example, being able to share parental leave can be a form of relief. At the same time, we have few natural meeting places for relatives and social situations, something that is much stronger in the groups in the other countries.”
“In Bhutan, an active religious life helps quite a bit. There is a strong connection to religion, and many people participate in religious gatherings several times a week. This gives them routines for regular meetings with others and widespread social support.”
Hopefully, these findings can be applied in society and policymaking to help people who are struggling due to being in this position. “It inspires hope that apparently only small improvements are needed for the child to revive,” said Gredebäck.
He continued, “In Sweden, we have to work hard to break the isolation, particularly for single mothers. We do not have any social glue. Many lack strong ties to their relatives and have no extended family to share the burden. We lack continuity in religious rites and do not have many natural contexts to connect to. If we can create more of these opportunities, we can help turn the tide in the cognitive development of many children and offer them better lives.”
Source study: Royal Society Open Science – Social cognition in refugee children: an experimental cross-sectional study of emotional processing with Syrian families in Turkish communities
Source study: Royal Society Open Science – Social and emotional contexts predict the development of gaze following in early infancy
Source study: Developmental Science – High quality social environment buffers infants’ cognitive development from poor maternal mental health: Evidence from a study in Bhutan