Health Not Disparity

Equal opportunity well-being

America: The Land of Mental Health Opportunity?

Parents’ education affects children’s mental health. Equal opportunity suffers.

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. “A chip off the old block”. “Like father, like son”. Before we even knew of genes, these idiomatic expressions already conveyed the commonsense observation that who our parents are shapes who we are. This is why physicians and insurers alike use our family history of diseases, like stroke and diabetes, to assess our own risk of these diseases.

In the research I conducted with Miles Taylor from Florida State University, we look at the processes that link parents' social status to symptoms of depression seen in their adult children. And what our research shows is that this is not just a biological process, but also a social one.

We used data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. This survey has been following to this day a group of American youth who were then 14 to 21 years old, and who are now well into their fifties. So these are wonderful data for studying how people's lives unfold.

Our results show that, the greater the parents’ education, the fewer the symptoms of depression in their adult children. And this is true even if there is a family history of depression.

So how can this be explained?

We find that much is explained by the adult children’s own education and income. Using a pathway model, our analysis shows that parents who are more educated also tend to have more educated children. And in turn, these more educated children go on to get better paying jobs. And this is what shields them from stress and from depressive symptoms.

This means that the association between parents’ education and their children’s mental health can be broken if there is little to no link between parents’ education and their children’s education.  

These findings have important implications for the future of health disparities in the U.S. In sociology, we distinguish between ascribed and achieved social statuses. Ascribed statuses are those we “inherit” from our parents, such as their education or income when we were born, while achieved statuses are those that we work towards on our own. In a society with a lot of social mobility, individuals’ achieved statuses can be very different from their parents’ and primarily depend on individual merit (hard work and ability). This is usually what we have in mind when we think of the U.S. as a land of opportunity: no matter what your origins are, if you work hard, you can make it – and big.

However, in a landmark research program on economic mobility called “The American Dream Program”, the Pew Charitable Trusts found this dream may be just that – an increasingly unattainable chimera. Indeed, they find that economic mobility has actually been decreasing over time in the U.S. suggesting, that no matter how hard one work, if their parents are not well-off, they will not have the same opportunity to succeed. And if our results are correct, mental health may be affected as well.

Coming back to pathways, an important reason for this increasing lack of mobility has been that college is no longer playing the equalizing role it had in the past century. It’s no secret that a college education has gotten increasingly expensive. However, there is still a pervasive belief that needs-blind admissions coupled with funding packages allow for students of all economic origins the same opportunity to enter in and complete college. Unfortunately though, reality appears to be playing out differently. According to recent research by Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski from the University of Michigan, the past 30 years have seen growing gaps between children from high- and low-income families in college entry, persistence, and graduation.

In other words, rather than getting weaker, the association between parent’s social status and their children’s access to education is getting stronger. This implies that the association between parents’ education and their children’s mental health may also become more robust.

This means that the solution to adult symptoms of depression may not just lie on the prescription pads in doctors’ offices, but may in fact begin in the classroom – and equal opportunities for all to a quality education.

For more on:

my study: http://bit.ly/Lcfkit

the Pew Charitable Trusts “American Dream Program”: http://bit.ly/MHTjYQ

Bailey and Dynarski’s study: http://bit.ly/K1T3Zm

Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, at McGill University.

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