Understanding the intergenerational transmission of mental health problems

Mental health from pre-conception to early adolescence
Thursday 26 July, 1300 – 1320


Elizabeth Spry
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development, School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Mental health problems often cluster in families across generations, with both parents and their children experiencing mental health challenges. We do not yet understand how this intergenerational transmission of mental health problems occurs. Research to date has shown that mothers’ depression during and after pregnancy is related to early emotional difficulties in their child.
However, mothers’ perinatal depression is often a continuation of prior mental health problems, and so it is unclear whether it is mothers’ depression prior to, during, or after pregnancy that is impacting on child outcomes. We addressed these questions using data from two prospective two-generation cohort studies (the Victorian Intergenerational Health Cohort and the Australian Temperament Project Generation 3; combined n=2,000 mother-infant dyads). Offspring emotional reactivity in infancy was associated with maternal mental health problems prior to pregnancy (adjusted β = 0.30, 95% CI 0.13-0.48), during pregnancy (adjusted β = 0.27, 95% CI 0.01-0.53) and after the birth of the child (adjusted β = 0.37, 95% CI 0.04-0.71).
We used causal mediation modelling techniques to understand whether there was a direct effect of maternal mental health problems prior to pregnancy on offspring early emotional reactivity, or whether these effects were mediated by maternal depression during pregnancy or after the birth of the child. These results will help us to pinpoint optimal time-points for intervention, to improve mental health outcomes both for mothers and their children.