If you’ve ever faced the famous Irish mother’s guilt trip for leaving the motherland, you may be in for a few extra phone calls this week – now, Irish mothers have the statistics to prove their broken hearts.

A new report from the Longitudinal Study on Aging (TILDA) led by Trinity College Dublin has revealed that Irish women whose children have emigrated are more prone to depression and other mental health illnesses than those whose children have stayed in Ireland.

TILDA has been monitoring the health and well-being of more than 8,000 Irish people over age 50 for a ten-year period, with the mission to make Ireland ‘the best place in the world to grow old.’ Initially, the study was focused on the impact of Ireland’s recession on the health and well-being of participants.

Although participants had seen the value of their assets drop during the recession, the loss of money and poor economy had not directly affected their health and well-being.

Inspired by a study in Mexico about youth emigration and the parental depression that ensued, TILDA researchers returned to their data with a fresh set of eyes and found a new channel by which to measure the relationship between the recession and depression.

The decline in the economy and job market led to more young Irish people leaving the country, which resulted in an increase in depressive symptoms and feelings of loneliness among their mothers.

Fathers did not generally exhibit the same mental health reactions, with the exception of those over 65, who reported greater levels of loneliness.

There were three different measures of mental health – depressive symptoms, self-rated mental health and indicators of loneliness.

Of the 2,911 parents whose children were all living in Ireland at the time of the first 2010 interview, 361 had seen at least one child emigrate two years later.

By the 2012 interview, mothers who’d seen a child emigrate showed increased symptoms in all three categories – other factors including retirement, widowhood and physical health were controlled in the study.

“There is a narrative out there that this was a recession that impacted on young people, as negative equity and debt primarily affects young people,” said the study's co-author Alan Barrett.

“We have now identified a group of older people who have suffered a mental health difficulty as a result of the recession, because of the emigration of their kids,” he said. “Mental health difficulties often develop into physical health difficulties, so the massive increase in emigration in recent years has public health implications.” Parents who saw more than one child emigrate were impacted even more heavily.

There was no evidence of major events affecting the children (i.e. becoming unemployed, divorced or widowed) worsening the mental health of their parents, which offers an interesting contrast to the effects of emigration alone.

The gender of the children, or whether or not they lived with their parents before leaving, made no difference in the study.

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