Apples Don't Fall Far From the Personality Tree

Panic disorder and depression in parents predict higher risk for their kids

November 11, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

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(dailyRx News) The apple tree saying for families goes way back. Parents' traits often become their children's traits. And parents' mental health issues often become their children's too.

A recent study found that children of parents with mental health conditions are at higher risk for mental disorders.

These researchers found that parents with a panic disorder were more likely to have children with various anxiety disorders, regardless of whether the parent had depression or not.

"Schedule a check-up - call a therapist."

The study, led by Dina R. Hirshfeld-Becker, PhD, the Director of High-Risk Studies and Anxiety Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, looked at psychiatric disorders occurring in children of parents who have a panic disorder or major depressive disorder.

The study involved four groups of children: 137 children of parents with panic disorder and depression, 26 children of parents with only panic disorder, 48 children of parents with only depression and 80 children of parents with neither depression nor panic disorder.

The researchers had already assessed these children once in early childhood, and this study was a follow-up done ten years later.

The researchers conducted interviews with the now-teenagers and their mothers and identified the adolescent as having a disorder if either interview led to a diagnosis.

The disorders seen among the children of these parents included panic disorder, agoraphobia, social phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Parents with major depressive disorder were more likely to have children with bipolar disorder, depression or disruptive behavior disorders. Parents with major depression were also more likely to have children who used drugs. The associations for parents with depression were true regardless of whether the parent also had panic disorder.

Parents who had both panic disorder and depression were more likely to have children with major depressive disorder, specific phobia or generalized anxiety disorder.

There was a higher rate of phobia among all the children of the parents with psychiatric disorders.

The authors concluded that children of parents with these mental health conditions continue to be at higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders as they enter their teens.

Therefore, the authors recommend that these children continue to be screened and monitored for mental health concerns from childhood onward.

However, it is worth noting that the number of parents with only panic disorder or only depression were relatively small. Small population sizes in a study make the results less reliable for larger groups of people.

Also, many of the authors of the study have financial links to pharmaceutical companies, who produce the medications that would be used to treat psychiatric conditions.

These additional facts do not mean this study's conclusion is unreliable, but the findings should be interpreted with caution.

After all, this study's findings affirm what clinicians have believed for years about mental health conditions within families, according to Glen Elliott, PhD, MD, a clinical professor at the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Chief Psychiatrist and Medical Director at Children's Health Council.

"Anxiety and depression are strongly familial in complex ways," Dr. Elliott told dailyRx News. "There almost certainly is a genetic component to this effect, but equally likely are social and psychological effects that are passed down from one generation to the next."

Dr. Elliott said that being aware of an increased risk among children of parents with these conditions can help ensure the children receive treatment if and when they develop similar conditions.

"Why depression and anxiety intermix across generations and within the same individual remains uncertain, but awareness of the risk is essential for clinicians and the general public alike, especially because these disorders can be quite disabling but also can respond beautifully to a variety of treatment interventions," he said.

The study was published in the November issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Several authors reported direct and indirect financial connections and/or consultancy work with over a dozen different pharmaceutical companies. They also reported links to various hospitals and medical associations.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 8, 2012
Last Updated:
December 30, 2013