Depression among Baltimore mothers increased due to civil unrest following Freddie Gray’s death

African-American mothers who have public or no health insurance were most affected

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – Mothers of young children living in neighborhoods near the civil unrest associated with Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody in April 2015 led to depression and other negative health effects, according to new research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and RTI International.

The research, published in the American Journal of Public Health, was conducted before, during and after the period of civil unrest following Freddie Gray’s death. The research showed that the number of mothers with depressive symptoms increased from an average of 21 percent before the incident to an average of 31 percent during the acute period (April to August), rising to 50 percent in August 2015. The mothers were mostly African-American (93%), who had public or no health insurance (100%), and had children 2 years old or younger (73%).

Mothers also reported concerns about disruptions in daily routines such as eating, sleeping and shopping, all of which can undermine maternal wellbeing and negatively affect parenting behaviors and subsequently, child development.  

According to the authors, mothers experiencing depressive symptoms is particularly concerning for children under 2 years of age, when they are highly dependent on their mothers and forming emotional attachments. Maternal depressive symptoms, even intermittent symptoms, can undermine maternal well-being and negatively affect parenting behaviors, increasing children’s risk of negative socioemotional development related to difficulties in attention regulation, attachment, achievement, adaptive skills, and externalizing and internalizing behavior.

“We found that the number of mothers reporting depressive symptoms increased dramatically in neighborhoods where the unrest occurred, but after five months, their symptoms returned to previous levels,” said Maureen Black, Ph.D., distinguished fellow at RTI and senior author of the report. “This study demonstrates an urgent need for public health practitioners to develop policies and programs to ensure that mothers and children are protected from community violence and civil unrest.”

The team of pediatric growth and nutrition experts surveyed 1,095 mothers between January 2014 and December 2015 as part of their ongoing Children’s HealthWatch project. The surveys were conducted at the pediatric emergency department and primary care clinics within the University of Maryland Medical System.

Because of the Children’s HealthWatch project, the authors were in a unique position to have data prior to the incident, during the acute period of civil unrest, and following the incident, Black said.

Although the decline in the prevalence of mothers with depressive symptoms just five months after the civil unrest is a positive sign, having more than one fifth of mothers report depressive symptoms, along with one half reporting material hardships, such as food and housing insecurity, signifies chronic conditions of stress for mothers that may undermine young children’s health and well-being, according to the study.

While chronic violence affects the entire community, this study highlights that it has particularly harmful effects on maternal-child health.

In the days following Freddie Gray’s death in April 2015, protests erupted with some turning violent. As a result, at least 20 police officers were injured, at least 250 people arrested, 300 businesses damaged, 150 vehicle fires, 60 building fires, 27 drugstores looted, thousands of police and Maryland National Guard troops deployed, and a state of emergency was declared in the Baltimore city limits.