The research, based on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, found that the effect remained even when socioeconomic factors were taken into account
“For young people who do not go to university, maternal depression may be a reason together with other family priorities. To reduce the long-term impact and increase life chances, interventions should focus on improving young people’s educational outcomes before or during secondary school.” Sally Bowman, lead research practitioner, Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust
A child whose mother has elevated symptoms of depression is 12% less likely to go to university, a study has found.
The University of Bristol research, which analysed data from 8,952 participants in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), investigated whether maternal depression was related to whether a young person studied at university, how far they moved for university, and the reasons for choosing a particular university. The ALSPAC study has followed pregnant women and their children since 1991.
The research, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, also explored how the young person’s own mental health, sense of control over events in their life (known as locus of control), and exam results in their teenage years related to their decision to study at university.
The researchers used data from questionnaires completed by mothers during pregnancy and when their child was 1, 5, 8, 11 and 18 years old. They also used questionnaire data collected from the child at the ages of 16, 18 and 26, along with records from exams taken at 14 and 16.
For each maternal questionnaire in which the mother reported experiencing elevated symptoms of depression, their child was 12% less likely to have studied at university, even after considering socioeconomic factors.
The researchers found that this effect was largely a consequence of these children doing less well in their exams at 16. Their lower locus of control scores at 16 also contributed to the effect, though to a lesser extent, suggesting targets for intervention.
“Interventions for young people to improve educational outcomes may wish to focus on improving earlier educational outcomes, ideally before or at the beginning of secondary school as this may have the best chance of improving their attainment,” the authors write.
Among those who did attend university, the authors write that those whose mothers had clinically elevated depressive symptoms on more occasions “did not differ in the distance travelled to university, but a desire to stay close to family or children was more often cited as important for their choice of institution.”
Dr Amanda Hughes, a research fellow at the University of Bristol and a lead author, said: “Maternal depression is estimated to impact around one in five mothers with children under 16. Our study found that young people, whose mothers had experienced more symptoms of depression during their lifetime, were less likely to study at university, and that differences in important education outcomes were already seen by the time a young person has reached 16 years old.”
Sally Bowman, lead research practitioner at the Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust and also lead author on the paper, added: “For young people who do not go to university, maternal depression may be a reason together with other family priorities. To reduce the long-term impact and increase life chances, interventions should focus on improving young people’s educational outcomes before or during secondary school.”
The researchers now plan to investigate how maternal depression might impact educational outcomes during secondary schooling, which their findings suggest are crucial for later educational outcomes.
Follow-on research using data from other surveys could also explore the role of fathers’ as well as mothers’ mental health, parenting behaviours, and changes in household income, which the research team were not able to consider.
Other studies have found a similar relationship between a parent’s poor mental health and their child’s outcomes. Longitudinal research published in October found that 40% of socioemotional behavioural problems at the age of 17 were attributable to parents’ persistent mental health problems. The findings applied to the mental health of both fathers and mothers.
The Bristol study was supported by the Health Foundation as part of a project entitled “Social and economic consequences of health: Causal inference methods and longitudinal, intergenerational data”.
This is the latest study to show a link between parental depression and worse outcomes for children. Although the Bristol research looked only at mothers, research by Liverpool University and King’s College found the same effect in the children of fathers who experienced depression. The principal reason for the effect in the Bristol study was that children of depressed mothers performed worse in exams at 16, thus lowering their chances of going on to university. As the researchers point out, this provides an opportunity for early, targeted intervention, making sure that children whose parents have experienced depression are offered greater educational support. More importantly, however, the research also reinforces the need to ensure that parents with depression or other mental health problems are offered the support they need to overcome them.