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Surprise Findings About Childhood Depression

The latest findings from a 24-year ongoing study in Australia suggest a startling conclusion about depression in childhood: whether or not a young child becomes depressed may have very little to do with his or her social environment.

Professor Jake Najman, who heads the Mater/University of Queensland Study of Pregnancy (MUSP), one of the world’s major longitudinal health studies, reports in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology that contrary to expectations, “even dysfunctional family relationships and poor communication styles have a limited impact on the observed mental health of a child”.

Very few population-based studies of symptoms of depression in young children have so far been carried out, and no previous studies have specifically examined factors which might cause depression in very young children.

Professor Najman said in a press release that the researchers examined many factors associated with reports from mothers of symptoms of depression in five-year-olds. These included marital partner changes, mother’s health problems in pregnancy, child health during the first six months of life, maternal anxiety and marital satisfaction early in the child’s development and the mother’s attitude towards caregiving.

They developed a multiple risk factor model but most of the children perceived to be depressed appeared to lack any exposures to risks. On the other hand, the majority of children exposed to high risk did not appear to become depressed — they appeared to be resilient.

Najman said the study posed many questions.

Evidence of the early origins of depressive symptoms in children arguably suggested a biological basis for these symptoms, as did the evidence pointing to weak social and environmental effects.

The study also had implications for a population health strategy relating to the early onset of mental health problems in young children.