How mental health of mothers is adversely affecting generations

Sunday September 24 2023

Tired mother with crying baby using laptop having headache and trying to work distantly online sitting on sofa at home. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


Mothers’ poor mental well-being could be fueling a “vicious cycle” of intergenerational poor mental health, new research shows.

The research, conducted in Uganda, examined the profound link between mothers’ adverse childhood experiences and the mental well-being of their children.

Maternal depression was found to play a vital role in transmitting these adverse effects across generations.

The study emphasises the urgency to prioritise mental health support for families.

The paper published in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology says it is increasingly clear that maternal mental health is one of the most crucial determinants of a child’s mental health. To improve the emotional health of children, focus should be placed on families, not individuals, it suggests.

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“We’ve uncovered an important link between maternal adverse childhood experiences and their children’s mental well-being,” UC Berkeley Anthropology Professor Andrew Wooyoung Kim, said.

Maternal depression

The study not only reveals a significant relationship between maternal adverse childhood experiences and child mental health problems but also shines a light on the potential role of maternal depression in this pathway.

The findings are a call to action to address mental health needs, Kim said, particularly in post-colonial areas with histories of societal oppression and elevated rates of psychiatric morbidity.

“Research on the potentially modifiable psychosocial factors affecting child mental health is particularly important for settings with high psychiatric morbidity and low availability of mental health resources, such as communities living within low- and middle-income countries,” suggested Prof Kim.

According to the team, adverse childhood experiences like stressful life events, trauma, abuse and parental incarceration increase the risk of various negative cardiovascular and psychiatric outcomes throughout one’s life. These may extend across generations and shape offspring mental health outcomes, including hyperactivity, emotional disturbance and depressive symptoms.

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“A mother’s mental health can affect her child’s through different pathways, both biological and social. There is likely a substantial genetic component to the development of mental illness, but the relationship also works through less engaged parenting, poor attachment, and worse early childhood development – which itself is critical for positive lifelong outcomes, including attainment, employment and adult health and well-being,” said the paper.

It is thus crucial to prioritise social services and mental health support for families in rural areas.

Recent estimates report that one in seven adolescents in the region experience significant mental health difficulties, with one in ten diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.

Yet there is a scarcity of epidemiological data on child mental illness and associated risk factors in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Similar to other African nations with histories of European colonialism and war, Uganda faces deep economic insecurity, limited mental healthcare infrastructure, and a heightened prevalence of risk factors known to be associated with elevated mental health problems.

Communities in recently war-affected regions in northern Uganda report elevated levels of psychiatric morbidity. For example, one study of adolescent girls in southern Uganda found a 16 percent prevalence of severe depressive symptoms and a 30 percent prevalence of moderate symptoms.

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Another study of adolescents living with HIV in southwestern Uganda found 16 percent with major depressive disorder.

According to the scientists, the violent colonial rule in African countries, which involved forced taxation, the control of cash crop industries, land seizures, military occupation, and ethnic divide, has resulted in a long history of political and economic marginalization for local communities, with continued societal implications in the present day, and exposure to various forms of psychosocial stress, trauma, and household adversity.