How Depression Harms Low-Income Moms And Babies

Illustration for article titled How Depression Harms Low-Income Moms And Babies

Over half of babies born in poverty have depressed moms, and these moms rarely get treatment — revealing yet again that one of the groups most in need of mental health services is least likely to receive them.


According to Donna St. George of the Washington Post, researchers at the DC-based Urban Institute found that more than 50% of babies in poverty have a mom with some level of depression, and one in nine are born to severely depressed moms (rates are lower, though still high, in the general population, with 41% of moms reporting some depression, and 7% suffering severely). Low-income moms are also unlikely to get treatment — only 30% of those with severe depression had talked to a therapist in the year the study was done. Unsurprisingly, this has an impact on babies — for instance, depressed moms are less likely to breastfeed. Says study co-author Olivia Golden,

A mom who is too sad to get up in the morning won't be able to take care of all of her child's practical needs. If she is not able to take joy in her child, talk baby talk, play with the child - those are features of parenting that brain development research has told us contribute to babies' and toddlers' successful development.

Given all the ways poverty makes parenting harder in this country, it's no surprise that low-income moms are more likely to be depressed. But in addition to harming moms themselves, the illness may also perpetuate the cycle of poverty — babies who don't get the stimulation they need in early life may struggle in school and jobs later on. And mental problems can sometimes have even worse consequences — it's possible that if unemployed mom Shaquan Duley had received therapy, she might not have resorted to drowning her children. Depression sometimes gets a bad rap in this country, with people complaining about overdiagnosis and overprescription of drugs — but this study bears out the suggestion (made by Judith Warner and others) that among some groups, depression is still undertreated. And these groups may have the fewest resources, and need treatment the most.

There's another side to the story, though, which is that poverty in America is pretty depressing. As much as mental health treatment is necessary for depressed moms, maybe we also need to be looking at the root causes that make depression more common among the poor. Low-income moms may lack many of the privileges higher-income families enjoy — access to a reliable source of healthy food, alternate childcare, safe housing, health insurance. If we could extend these benefits to all mothers, we might find that fewer of them get depressed.

Study Links Poverty To Depression Among Mothers [Washington Post]

Image via Mika Heittola/



And most likely, poor women have low wage jobs that offer no maternity leave. And if they did offer leave, it would be unpaid, which makes it impossible to take leave.