Familial Mood Disorders

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Presented by: Natalie L. Rasgon, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor and Director of the Stanford Center for Neuroscience in Women’s Health
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Stanford University Medical Center
June 14, 2007

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Lecture Overview:Dr. Rasgon’s lecture offered a well-wrought primer on the topic of mood disorders in general, and the familial variety in particular, with an emphasis on women. In America, 20% of families are affected by severe mental illness. In keeping with that alarming data, 21% of hospital beds are used to treat patients with mental illness, which is the leading cause of hospital admission. Psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders in women are linked to several factors, including: the effects of the female reproductive system on the central nervous system, a previous psychiatric history, social factors including the multiple roles women play in everyday life compared to men, and the developmental context that leads to both biological and environmental causes. For example, within the 9.5% of the population that suffers from depression, women suffer from this often debilitating disorder twice as often as men. According to Dr. Rasgon, there is unfortunately a social stigma attached to mental illness. However, this stigma should not prevent us, as a society and as individuals, from becoming more adept at recognizing how we feel and function or from asking for help when we need it. There is much at stake, Dr. Rasgon advises, because the impact of untreated depression can be devastating and may affect a variety of domains of life including: broken marriages, destroyed property, inability to work and maintain a daily routine, and suicide.

Regarding women, Dr. Rasgon discussed the issues related to pregnancy and treatment with medications during pregnancy. There are no risk-free options, and it was repeatedly noted that each patient should maintain a close relationship with her physician to determine the best route to a healthy pregnancy for mother and child. In some cases, psychotherapy alone works during pregnancy, and some patients are able to stop medications during pregnancy. However, the most dangerous time is postpartum when psychiatric hospital admissions relating to childbirth can escalate. A parent’s mental illness can have devastating effects on the child, including neglect and reduced attention to basics such as using a car seat. Children of parents with untreated mental illness may face lifelong consequences, such as lowered self-esteem, impaired emotional regulation, aggressive behavior, insecure attachment to both parents, and lower cognitive functioning.

In the near future, there will likely be more news about the use of hormone therapy to treat depression. Given the neuroprotective factors associated with estrogen, the debate is far from over regarding the risks and benefits of hormone therapy, including the antidepressant capabilities of estrogen. This debate about the correlations between some hormone therapies and either stroke, cardiovascular disease, or breast cancer will continue for some time. With that in mind, Dr. Rasgon stated that it is important to identify the women who may benefit from estrogen therapy.

Dr. Rasgon advised her audience that if there is a worry that a loved one is in need of treatment for mental illness, but the family members are not sure how to approach the person, consider asking the simple question: “Do you believe you will be safe?” Any indication that a person intends to harm himself or herself or harm another person should be met with an immediate effort to seek professional help. For more information about familial mood disorder or female-specific mood disorders, please visit the websites listed below.

For More Information:

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Establishment of the Stanford Center for Neuroscience in Women’s Health:

Dr. Rasgon and her research:

Center for Neuroscience in Women’s Health

On Dr. Rasgon’s book: The Effects of Estrogen on Brain Function:

Department of Psychiatry at Stanford