October 30, 2007

Mother's Mental Illness and Its Impact On Child Health

Research has shown that the impact of maternal mental illness is frequently severe on a child's development. A new story out of the UK discusses this impact. It states that the early experiences babies have with their mentally ill mothers "may (negatively) affect their future health and development."

However, as "Dr. Susan Pawlby, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, emphasizes," there are "complex issues surrounding the study...Among them are genetic risks, poor health practices, psychiatric medication, breast-feeding, and the physical and emotional care of the baby. Infants are entirely dependent for their health and well-being on those who care for them, and those whose mothers suffer from mental illness are at risk if the care provided does not meet their developmental needs. In such instances, she warns, the long-term implications for the child are potentially devastating for the child."

A large body of research is accumulating on this topic. We've covered maternal and familial factors that increase the risk for developmental problems in children several times: Here, here and here.

Further, "evidence from longitudinal community studies shows that, compared to children of mothers who are healthy, children of mothers suffering from mild-to-moderate depression or anxiety in the period around birth are more likely to have increased behavioral, emotional, and/or cognitive difficulties. These, in turn, may have an adverse impact on the children’s peer relationships and school attendance.

The outcome for babies whose mothers have severe mental illness is, surprisingly, less well studied. This may be because of lower fertility rates in this group of women, and also because many babies of mothers with severe mental illness are taken into care. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that early mother-infant interaction plays a significant role in the outcome for the child. Observational studies show that women with severe mental illness often have problems in relating to their new babies.

Mentally ill mothers may appear indifferent, remote, intrusive, insensitive and self-absorbed. The babies, in turn, may react by protesting and crying excessively, or by becoming passive and avoidant. Findings such as these suggest that early experiences with mothers suffering from severe mental illness may interfere with the infant’s regulation of emotion and attention, with cognitive and memory function, with the ability to distinguish the self from other people, and with the security of his/her attachment relationship to the mother. Without support, these experiences may continue to affect children’s health and development over a decade later."

Research suggests that therapy for the children of the mentally ill can be very helpful.

Source: Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London

Additional Reading: Tips on how to prevent schizophrenia in children

The Long-term Impact of Stress During Childhood on Brain Development

Growing Up with a Mentally Ill Mother - "Daughters of Madness", a New Book


Though Schizophrenia remains an allover problem, there is much hope that as we start to understand the brain further, this ailment could be treated in a routine manner. Coming from traditional societies I find that mental problems are more common in the West not because they are detected more often, but mainly because the family infrastructure has disintegrated in general in the West. For example in UK native English origin and mixed marriage children (due to loss of identity and higher divorce rates of parents) have greater mental problems than those who have more solid marital structure such as Indian couples. As the divorce figures amongst Indian couples are less than those of the British couples or mixed couples are the children of Indian parents are more stable mentally.

Moreover, the children in the U.S. suffer as commonly as those in Britain due to high divorce rate. The worse scene in the U.S. is unfortunately that of the African-American. Finally, Western psychiatric approach is a failure when applied to the Eastern mind. Hence, tailoring of this descipline to each culture is desirable.

Posted by: Dr. Vimla Raje at December 9, 2007 07:38 AM

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