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Gun, Fire, Motor Vehicle Safety Practices Linked to Parents’ Depressive Symptoms

Young child (4-6) reaching for a handgun

AU School of Public Affairs assistant professor Taryn Morrissey conducted a study that links parental depression to increased safety risks for their children. Her article on the findings, “Parents’ Depressive Symptoms and Gun, Fire, and Motor Vehicle Safety Practices,” was published online by the Maternal and Child Health Journal on January 5, 2016.

Morrissey used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, a nationally representative sample of children birth to age five, to examine associations between measures of parents’ depressive symptoms and their parenting practices related to gun, fire, and auto safety.

The results suggest that mothers with moderate or severe depressive symptoms were two percentage points less likely to report that their child always sat in the back seat of the car and three percentage points less likely to have at least one working smoke detector in the home. Overall, one in five households with young children owned at least one firearm, and only in about two-thirds of these homes were all guns kept locked at all times. When both parents exhibited depressive symptoms, children were 2 to 6 percentage points more likely to live in households that owned one or more guns.

Morrissey said her interest in a possible link between depressive parents and at-risk children was prompted by recent mass shootings, as well as the incidence of firearm-related injuries and deaths among children.

Morrissey hopes her study will prompt physicians to screen for depression among their patients, and to talk to their young patients’ parents about safeguarding their children, including the need for car safety, smoke detectors, and the potential risk and safe storage of firearms. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that the absence of guns from children’s homes is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents.

With work centering on examining and improving public policies for vulnerable children, Morrissey’s research has been published in such journals as Pediatrics, Child Development, Developmental Psychology, and the Journal of Marriage and Family. She joined the SPA faculty in 2010. From January 2013 to August 2014, Morrissey was on leave from AU to serve as senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary for human services policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services. She worked primarily on the President's Early Learning Initiative, including Early Head Start and child care. She also served as a health policy adviser on the staff of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, first for Sen. Edward Kennedy and then for Sen. Tom Harkin. Morrissey earned a doctorate in development psychology and a master’s degree in human development and family studies at Cornell University.