A Troubling Combination: Depression, Poverty, and Parenting

Depressed MotherThere is a troubling trend that researchers have identified again and again – low-income parents, especially single mothers, have higher rates of depression and depressive symptoms than their higher-income counterparts. A new Child Trends’ study found that more than half of a group of low-income mothers in Maryland felt down, depressed, or hopeless in the past year and almost a third had those feelings combined with a lack of interest or pleasure in doing things.

That’s a stark contrast to some national estimates showing that less than 7 percent of all adults have experienced a major depressive episode and that only 5 percent of single parents with incomes at or above the federal poverty level report symptoms of depression. While a recent report from the Urban Institute found that, regardless of income, 14.5 percent of all mothers with young children experienced depression, it also reported that mothers with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level were more likely to experience severe depression, while higher income mothers reported mild or moderate symptoms.

In another Child Trends study, 36 percent of a group of low-income parents in Minnesota who reported depressive symptoms described them as persistent or concerning to others.

Depression and poverty is not only a troubling combination for parents, but research has shown that children can get caught in the web of parental depression as well. Parents who suffer from depressive symptoms are less likely to have feelings of self-efficacy and engage in positive parenting behaviors.  Data from the Fragile Families and Child Well Being Study shows that mothers with persistent depression invest less time with their children on positive activities such as reading, outings, trips to the park, and indoor play. Additionally, depressed mothers are less likely to breastfeed, adhere to safety procedures (such as securing children in proper car seats), and control their children’s chronic illnesses. This evidence suggests that children of depressed parents are often denied adult attention and interactions that are crucial for safe and healthy development.

Multiple studies have shown that children with depressed mothers are more likely to have behavior problems, poor academic performance, and delays in cognitive and social development. Not only have studies shown links between parents struggling with depression and increased child injuries and visits to the emergency room, but a recent study conducted in the Bronx suggests that mothers with depressive symptoms are two and a half times more likely to have an overweight or obese child.

Getting help can be a difficult challenge for low-income parents. To start with, some parents may not recognize that they are experiencing depression because they assume their symptoms are just part of everyday life in a stressful environment. Then there are basic barriers like not having a car to get to a treatment location or not having someone to watch the kids while the parent is in treatment. The cost and availability of mental health services can be a more complex challenge, especially when a parent lacks health insurance. Finally, there is some evidence that a distrust of health care providers or skepticism about their ability to understand low income parents’ daily reality keeps parents from seeking treatment.

States are trying a variety of approaches to get care to the people who need it most. For example, some states try to screen parents for depression at the time when they come in for their child’s health care appointments. Many are promoting awareness among low income parents of depressive symptoms and their effect on children, so that treatment is framed as a way to help their children, not just themselves. Others offer mental health services at locations that low-income parents trust – such as during home visiting or in Head Start centers.

While understanding the links between poverty, depression and parenting represents an important first step, the severity of this issue requires a focused and collaborative effort among policymakers, providers and others working to improve the lives of low-income families.

Vanessa Harbin, Research Analyst

Samantha Goldhagen, Research Assistant


This site was… how do you say it? Relevant!!
Finally I’ve found something which helped me. Appreciate it!

As a single mother of 4 struggling with depression, it makes sense that there is a connection between poverty, single parenthood, and depression; however, there are other issues that can contribute to depression. The other parent may be engaging in abusive behavior, like stalking, harassing, and no child support, intentionally undermining everything that we can do for our kids. The constant stress caused by emotional abuse will turn into depression.

I have 4 chrilden all under 5 years old the youngest is not even 5 months old yet the oldest is 5 I live in a shelter type enviorment and rules here are stict breakfast at 6 every day dinner at 6 my baby is not sleeping thru the nite yet so I am up with him all nite and then up with the rest of chrilden by 6 I do not rest again till 10 pm maybe I get probley 10 hours of sleep in a week I know I have depression but I can’t afford help I cry for no reason my moods every where my kids spend 80percent of the day semi quiet cause I can’t handle noise I hate being outside and over the last 4 months I. Hate being w/ppl whatdo I do

We need custody protection, free in-home therapy options, and truly anonymous counseling. I fear to ask for help because I don’t want my children to be taken away from me. I also have no car and no access to public transit to make therapy appointments. Plus, I have five children, one of which with severe Autism, and nobody to care for my kids so that I can attend counseling. I HAVE my Bachelor’s degree, I once had a prestigious career working in propriety higher education, and I graduated from college with my first degree at 17. I was ahead of the curve. Poverty was not part of the plan. Now, being depressed, makes reality that much more difficult.

I am a single mom who lives in a low-income apartment with a four and six year old. I love them more than anything and want nothing more than for them to be happy and succeed. I was diagnosed with depression at the age of fifteen but because of certain happenings in my unhappy and emotionally and mentally abusive childhood, I refused to take it. Until a couple years ago, I was unmedicated and trying to get out of poverty, constantly working while their dad would do nothing all day. When I finally decided that he would never change, I got the courage to realize that I needed to get out. I moved in with my mother who is an alcoholic and addicted to narcotics. She said she would help me but it was miserable. The boys and I stayed upstairs with two rooms because my stepdad came home after twelve hour shifts and fell asleep in front of the tv every day. When I asked for help job hunting or for school from mom it was always a sigh and a bother and an excuse so I was stuck there for nine months supporting her drug habit (the methadone clinic is approximately $350/month.) I finally was rescued by a friend to stay with for a few weeks before her lease was up and signed up for low income housing. There weren’t openings for six to nine months. I stayed with my dad and found a job at mcdonalds. Little did I know, my dad had been unmedicated for years not treating his bipolar disorder. I told him (after he spanked my then two year old with a wooden back scratcher) that he would abuse my child no longer and when I got home from work my stepmom told me that he had a place lined up for the boys and I at Haven House which is a shelter in Hamilton, Ohio. I called my boyfriend who has cerebral palsy to tell him what was going on. Little did I know, he had already worked out a back up plan for me to stay with his parents in Indiana. He did this just what I told him based on my history with them. Anyway, a few months after we were there, the low income apartment opened up. My boyfriend’s family is a REAL family. The kind that tell each other they love them. The kind that you can talk to whenever you need something. It was and still kind of is alien to me but if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was seeing a psychologist on a regular basis until I started my first semester of college in august. I am still seeing the psychiatrist regularly, but my busy schedule and still no transportation makes it very hard to seek therapy. I know that I need it and could benefit in ways unimaginable but right now all I have are my boyfriend and a close friend. My boys are happy and understanding but new symptoms are starting to occur and it is not fair for my boys to lose out on me. People should know that this is a real thing. Many moms are afraid to come out and talk for fear of losing their children. I have feared that many times but I think we should start coming out and being more open to single low-income mothers. We try to write our depression off thinking that it is bull and we shouldn’t feel this way or that we deal with everything else, we should be able to deal with this. As someone who is going to school full time with two boys, and no car, I must say that I may not have much but if it weren’t for the people who encouraged me and didn’t look the other way when I was shouldering everything else, I wouldn’t be here.

[…] creating more babies, are in most need. As the studies have told us, low-income single mothers are most depressed, least educated, are most isolated from work and public assistance and are in the worst economic […]

From Vanessa Harbin, co-author of the blog:

The research shows that depressed mothers are more likely to struggle with many of the management tasks that are part of parenting — including everyday tasks unrelated to having a child with special needs. However, as you point out, one would expect that the stress of caring for a child with special needs would increase the risk for parental depression, particularly among low-income parents who may lack access to quality health care or have a difficult time navigating the health care system. (Most parents of kids who have special health care needs need help coordinating care and services. If you’re interested, check out the Child Trends’ DataBank indicator, “Children with Special Health Care Needs” at http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=children-with-special-health-care-needs.) A Child Trends analysis found that depressive symptoms were indeed more likely among mothers of children with a disability (http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Child_Trends-2006_03_31_RB_MomDepression.pdf). The relationship between depression and parenting isn’t simple, but you’ve asked an important question!

You mentioned that mothers with depression are less likely to control a child’s chronic illness. That makes me curious about whether many of the mothers with depression are raising children with chronic illnesses or other disabling conditions. If they are, could some of the depression be related to the additional stresses that accompany parenting a special needs child?

Did the researchers identify to what extent fathers of these children were living nearby (Fragile Families data would suggest most) and to what extent and whether the mothers considered or approached them for childcare?

Readers may want to visit Child Trends’ DataBank–http://www.childtrends.org/databank/–which features information on more than hundred indicators, including parental depression.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the latest research about children and youth from our weekly enews.
Yes, please!