Poverty, Depression Compound Challenges Facing Mothers with Infants

Usually, I write about the impact mental illness has on the broader society or on the lives of individuals living with a mental illness. But the other day I came across a 3-year-old study that caused me to think about the impact one kind of mental illness, severe depression, has on the children whose parents live with it.

For those who work with children living in poverty, the results probably come as no surprise. But I’m a believer in using data to support our anecdotally-based hunches, so I offer you a sampling of results that came from a 2010 study by The Urban Institute called “Infants of Depressed Mothers Living in Poverty: Opportunities to Identify and Serve”:

  • 11 percent of infants living in poverty have a mother living with severe depression (compared with 7 percent for the general population).
  • Depression can interfere with parenting, potentially leading to poor child development.
  • Infants living in poverty with severely depressed mothers are more likely to have mothers who also struggle with domestic violence and substance abuse, and who report being only in fair health.
  • The study also notes that treatment of depression works for mothers who seek it. The problem is, not many do: More than two-thirds of the mothers studied “did not speak with a mental health practitioner.”

So what can we do to make sure more mothers (and fathers) with depression get the help they need? The study suggests that we can start by identifying those mothers through the public benefits they are likely to be receiving, such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).

But at a time when food stamps and general welfare are being cut, and when you have states like Kansas refusing to make Medicaid more available to the uninsured living in poverty, it’s hard to imagine how long it will be before the opportunity arises to truly give these mothers the help they need.

Consider the impoverished mother who doesn’t have health insurance. Her access to treatment for her depression is limited; it may deter her from even seeking treatment, even though organizations like Wyandot Center can offer help. The odds that she is experiencing a health problem that drives her into debt are greater. That debt, in turn, may be compounding her depression. The depression may be making it more difficult to find work, and so on.

To be sure, one’s economic plight isn’t the only source of depression. Family history, genetics, diet and other life circumstances can all contribute. But this study demonstrates that economics do play a role. Steps taken to alleviate poverty can reduce the likelihood of depression, and so reduce the chances that the children of depressed parents aren’t themselves the victims of something completely out of their control.

So what can we do about this? Plenty. We can spend our time talking with our elected officials about the need for a stronger safety net. We can write our U.S. senators and representatives and urge them to support more money for WIC and SNAP. And we can urge our state lawmakers to increase the income guidelines in Kansas that make it next to impossible for parents living in poverty to receive Medicaid. Doing so would help 25,000 Wyandotte Countians have access to the health care they deserve. We owe it to them — and to their children.

Comments, questions? Send them to Mark at wiebe_w@wmhci.org.

This editorial originally appeared in Wyandot Inc.’s January 2014 enewsletter. Republished in its entirety and with permission.

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