Teenage depression shows family ties

Children and teenagers sometimes experience bouts of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair that are diagnosed as major depression. Researchers have been unable to determine whether depressed youths display an early version of adult depression or a different mood disorder, perhaps stemming from problems such as anxiety, delinquency, and substance abuse.

There does appear to be a strong family connection, however. A new investigation has found that adult depression and the teenage version run in the same families.

In interviews with students at nine high schools in western Oregon, psychologist Peter M. Lewinsohn and his colleagues at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene identified 268 students who had previously experienced episodes of major depression (usually starting at age 13 or 14), 110 who had suffered from anxiety disorders or other psychiatric problems that didn’t include depression, and 291 who had never developed any mental disorders. The researchers then interviewed 2,202 of the participants’ parents and siblings age 13 or older.

Compared with the study group without mental disorders, family members of depressed adolescents show markedly elevated rates of major depression and moderately elevated rates of alcohol abuse, according to the team’s study, which appears in the January Archives of General Psychiatry. Most family members who abused alcohol also exhibited depression.

However, parents and siblings of depression-free teens with anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks, or drug abuse show no increased depression rates, reports Lewinsohn’s group.

These findings strengthen earlier reports suggesting that adolescent depression exists apart from other emotional disorders, often as a prelude to adult depression, comments psychiatrist Richard Harrington of Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital in England. Uncovering the specific ways in which genetic and environmental factors promote depression in certain families will require further study, he says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.