They are also at greater risk of physical ill-health, with respiratory diseases, arthritis, back pain, digestive complaints, diabetes, and other chronic conditions particularly prevalent.
The findings — from a University of Limerick study — have prompted calls for better supports for parents of children with special needs, and greater recognition of their need for treatment when they are depressed.
Study co-author Stephen Gallagher, of the UL Department of Psychology, said: “If their condition goes untreated, the ill-effects can extend beyond the parent to influence the whole family. Supporting these families may not only bring health benefits to the parents, but indirectly benefit the whole family.”
The study used data from the national Growing Up in Ireland research project and compared the cases of 627 parents of children with learning disabilities such as autism and ADHD, speech and language difficulties, slow progress, and dyslexia, with 7,941 parents of typically developing children. It found 15% of parents of children with learning disabilities suffered depression compared to 9% in the other group.
The corresponding figures for physical ill-health were 14%, compared with 11%.
The study took account of the likelihood that physical ill-health contributed to depression, and that parents of children with learning disabilities were more likely to be unemployed, parenting alone, and under financial stress, so the excess risk shown is attributable solely to the extra caring duties.
Catherine Cox of the Carers’ Association said the study’s findings reflected the organisations’s experiences.
“We deal with all ages and all kinds of illness and disability but probably the most stressed group would be the parents of children with special needs and particularly with autism and ADHD,” said Ms Cox.