Mental Health of Women Affected by Caring for Children with MS, Study Suggests

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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Caring for children with multiple sclerosis (MS) can affect the mental health of their mothers over the long term, a study has found.

The study, “Increased mental health care use by mothers of children with multiple sclerosis,” was published in the journal Neurology.

People with chronic health conditions like MS often require the assistance of caregivers. If those in need of care are children, the role of the caregiver is usually assumed by the parents.

While it is well-recognized that caring for adults with MS can be stressful for caregivers, how children with MS affect the overall health and well-being of those who care for them, usually their mothers, is still poorly characterized.

To explore the physical and mental health of women caring for their children with MS, researchers used a collection of databases containing information on people treated in the public healthcare system in Ontario, Canada, to identify children with MS under the age of 18 and their mothers.

Researchers also used the same databases to extract data from children without the disease, and their mothers, to establish a reference group for comparisons.

In total, 156 mothers of children with MS (MS-mothers), and 624 mothers of children without MS (non-MS-mothers) were identified. MS- and non-MS-mothers were matched for age at childbirth, geographical region, and a child’s age and sex at the time of diagnosis.

The team compared the prevalence of physical and mental health conditions, and the rates of clinical visits between the two mother groups five years before children were diagnosed with MS, during the year of diagnosis, and five years after diagnosis.

Compared to non-MS-mothers, MS-mothers had significantly higher rates of any physical health condition before, during, and following the diagnosis of their child, results showed. Similar results were found regarding the prevalence of any mood or anxiety disorder.

MS-mothers also had higher rates of hospitalization compared to non-MS mothers at almost all time points (before and after their child’s diagnosis).

In a statistical analysis accounting for multiple related factors, however, MS-mothers were not seen to have higher rates of physician or primary care doctor visits compared to non-MS-mothers.

The data also showed that MS-mothers were 1.6 times more likely to use psychiatric health services compared to non-MS-mothers across all time points. Still, among those who did use psychiatric healthcare, no significant differences in annual visit rates were found between the two groups.

“Mothers of children with MS have a higher prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, and use more mental health services before and after their child’s diagnosis with MS as compared to mothers of children without MS,” the researchers wrote.

The team noted that differences between these groups and evident before a diagnosis were most likely due to stress that accompanies evidence of symptoms starting to develop in a child. “The experience leading to a child’s diagnosis can itself be prolonged and stressful for parents,” the investigators wrote.

“An alternative explanation for our findings is that maternal mental illness influences the risk of childhood MS,” they added, although they emphasized that further studies are needed to “elucidate the reasons underlying the higher burden of maternal mental illness preceding the diagnosis of pediatric MS.”

Overall, the data suggest that caring for a child with MS can affect the mental health of their mothers, before and after their child’s diagnosis.

“Pediatric healthcare providers should be alert to possible mental health concerns of mothers of children with MS,” the team concluded.

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