Low-Income Mothers of Young Children Experience Higher Rates of Major Depression

By Stephanie Schmit

Low-income mothers have higher rates of maternal depression than other mothers. Because children are impacted by the  negative effects of parental depression, this higher rate means that low-income children are disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of maternal depression Fortunately, access to services and treatment, including high-quality early childhood and family support interventions, can reduce the negative impacts of that depression for the whole family.

A recent Urban Institute brief looks at the prevalence of major depression in mothers of young children, the extent to which mothers receive treatment, the relationship between health insurance and accessing treatment, and how mothers rate the effectiveness of their treatment. According to the brief, one in every 11 low-income mothers experienced a major depressive episode in the past year – 8.8 percent compared to 7.5 percent among mothers with young children across all income groups.

Because, low-income mothers are less likely to seek treatment, low-income young children experience the negative effects of parental depression, such as poor health, abuse or neglect, more frequently and to a greater degree than by their peers with higher family incomes. Children whose parents are depressed are also more likely to experience depression, anxiety and other developmental and mental health problems themselves.

Access to treatment, mental health services, family support, and other multi-generational interventions are key to breaking this cycle. Over one-third of depressed low-income mothers with young children have not seen a mental health professional or taken medication to treat their depression. Uninsured mothers are much less likely to receive treatment, according to the Urban Institute brief. However, the authors did find that low-income mothers on Medicaid had similar treatment rates as low-income mothers who had private or other insurance. 

To reduce the devastating effects of maternal depression on low-income mothers and their children, policymakers and other stakeholders must take steps to ensure that families have access to Medicaid and other forms of health coverage, accessible mental health services, and high-quality early childhood and family support programs such as Head Start and home visiting, that can help link families to the services they need. Home visiting services, for example, can help identify depression and other mental health concerns among both parents and their children and can provide family support and linkages to medical coverage and other resources the family needs. Identifying depression early and having access to and participating in treatment will help ensure that more children are spared from the negative and lasting impacts of maternal depression and that mothers are able to participate in the workforce and care for their children.