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Screening, care for parental depression recommended

Study suggests routine checks, but the healthcare system isn’t accommodating.

March 15, 2010|By Marilyn Elias | Special to The Times
  • Mental health experts say millions of kids would be better off if there was more rigorous screening to identify children at risk due to their parents' depression.
Mental health experts say millions of kids would be better off if there was… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Not only should parents and children be screened more routinely for depression, they also need access to care, says last year's report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine on the effects of parental depression.

Adult primary care and pediatricians' offices could be convenient places for screening, but such screening happens infrequently, says John Williams, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University who studies depression treatment in primary care. The healthcare system has built-in barriers that discourage it, he says.

There is no insurance reimbursement code for such screening, he notes, "so you can't even get paid for it."

Further, the fragmented healthcare system militates against a comprehensive family approach. Although more U.S. adults, and thus more parents, are being treated for depression, such care doesn't occur through any organized system that considers what's happening to children or that links the whole family to care, says Williams.

Nonetheless, many mental health experts say millions of kids would be better off if there was more rigorous screening to identify children at risk due to their parents' depression.

The fallout from parental depression doesn't just go away, says Tarzana psychotherapist Diana Barnes. One depressed client she treats still recalls fervent, doomed attempts to engage her mother as a child. "No matter what she did, she couldn't get her mother's attention." Now in her mid-30s, the woman "is still desperately trying to get her mother's attention and approval."

Children caught in the cold grip of a parent's depression can carry patterns they grew up with into their own parenting — and beyond, says William Beardslee, a professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "The payoff for dealing with this well is so high that it can have a positive effect on the next few generations."

health@latimes.com

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