Income Influences Mothers’ Depressive Symptoms

New research findings verify that income changes directly affect depressive symptoms in women during the first three years after childbirth, according to an article to be published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The article, co-written by Eric Dearing, assistant professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Psychology, suggests that interventions to help increase income levels of such women could improve their mental health, which in turn can foster the social and emotional development of their children.

Dearing, along with researchers Beck Taylor at Baylor University and Kathleen McCartney at Harvard University, analyzed self-reported data obtained from more than 1,300 women at 10 sites around the country. The study’s primary focus was on the effects of early child care on children, but Dearing and his colleagues were able to use the data to study how income and poverty affected depression in the study group. The women reported their income, hours of employment, and depressive symptoms at five intervals during the three years.
“We followed the women over time to see how their depressive symptoms changed with changes in income,” Dearing says. “We could see that changes in income and poverty status were significantly associated with changes in depression symptoms. Because we examined changes within families, our findings were not affected by unobserved differences between families — a problem that has limited past comparisons of poor and not-poor families.”

After giving birth, women whose income dropped below the poverty line were one and a half times more likely to experience a clinical level of depressive symptoms than if they had not fallen into poverty, the researchers found. Alternatively, if the women’s income increased to above the poverty line, they were one and half times more likely to go from being clinically depressed to not being depressed.

“We were also able to demonstrate that falling into and out of poverty led to depressive symptom changes, rather than depression leading to poverty,” Dearing says.

Because most income gains were associated with increased employment, he says interventions that lead to increased income for poor families, such as job training, likely will have both economic and public health benefits for mothers and their children.

“This is important because we are talking about new mothers, and there is substantial evidence that depression in the first three years of life can have considerable negative influences on children’s cognitive and social-emotional development,” Dearing says. “This may be because poverty affects parent mental health and, in turn, parenting.”

Stress within a family, he says, can lead to parenting that may be more inconsistent, harsher, and less warm toward the children, all of which can lead to behavior problems.

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