A Moment of Opportunity: Address Maternal Depression and Fight Poverty Among Parents and Children

By Stephanie Schmit and Olivia Golden

One in nine poor infants lives with a mother experiencing severe depression and more than half live with a mother experiencing some level of depressive symptoms.  While depression is highly treatable, many low-income mothers do not receive treatment—even for very severe levels of depression. Indeed, one-third of low-income mothers with major depressive disorder get no treatment at all.  Unfortunately, untreated maternal depression is damaging to children, particularly young children, placing at risk their safety and cognitive and behavioral development. A new brief from CLASP summarizes why early childhood and anti-poverty advocates should seize the moment to address the problem and create pathways out of poverty for both generations.

An important and relevant vehicle to promote treatment is the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which offers many poor mothers access to health insurance for the first time. The ACA requires a benefit package that includes mental health, supports attention to depression in other ways (such as through quality indicators and free preventive coverage of screening), and encourages integrated care in ways that could support poor families. These changes to health care target some of the historical barriers that have hindered depression treatment for poor mothers.  These barriers include the high cost of treatment, complex and counter-productive reimbursement rules, low quality of treatment, and fragmentation between primary care and mental health providers.

Addressing maternal depression offers a crucial, large-scale, and time-sensitive opportunity to help children escape poverty. Depression is a treatable problem at the level of the individual mother and child, and the implementation of health reform makes crucial new resources available. Now we must ensure that effective federal, state, and local policy is put in place to improve life opportunities for poor mothers and their children.