JOURNAL ARTICLE

The mental health of Australian mothers and fathers of young children at risk of disability

Eric Emerson, Gwynnyth Llewellyn
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 2008, 32 (1): 53-9
18290914

OBJECTIVES: To: (1) determine the strength of the relationship between risk of child disability and parental mental health in a nationally representative sample of Australian families with young children; (2) estimate the contribution of distress among parents of children at risk of disability to overall parental psychiatric morbidity; and (3) explore the extent to which between-group differences in parental mental health may be attributable to differences in exposure to other risk factors.

METHOD: Secondary analysis of cross-sectional data collected in Wave 1 of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (n=4,983; 6.5% of children identified as being at risk of disability).

RESULTS: Elevated rates of psychological distress indicative of serious mental illness were found among mothers (OR=5.1, 95% CL 3.5-7.6), but not fathers (OR=1.4, 95% CL 0.5-3.4) of children at risk of disability. Psychological distress among mothers of children at risk of disability accounted for 23% of estimated total maternal psychiatric morbidity. Approximately 50% of the elevated risk of distress for mothers was accounted for by increased rates of poverty among children at risk of disability and their families, an association possibly mediated by increased exposure to adverse life events, poorer maternal health and reduced personal-social capital.

CONCLUSIONS: The association between risk of child disability and maternal mental health is strongly confounded by increased rates of poverty among children at risk of disability. Any residual risk appears to be related to the poorer social, emotional and behavioural development of children at risk of disability. Social and health policy responses need to focus on poverty reduction, enhancing the personal social capital of mothers living in poverty and on improving the social, emotional and behavioural development of the children.

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