"We know a lot about mothers and maternal depression
and the effect that it has on children and we're just now starting
to learn about paternal depression," lead author Dr. Craig Garfield
"We knew that paternal depression existed and it affects about 5 to
10 percent of dads — and there are 7 million fathers in the U.S,"
said Garfield, a pediatrician and researcher at Northwestern
University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
A father's depression can harm his child's development during
critical early years of life, the authors write in the journal
Pediatrics. Identifying depression in new fathers and those who are
risk is an important step toward getting them the help they need,
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocates routine
screening for mental health disorders like depression among both men
and women who are planning to become parents.
"We knew (depression) affected the fathers and the children and
families, but we didn't know when and where to focus our attention
for fathers in order to marshal our resources," Garfield told
So he and his colleagues analyzed data on 10,623 males who were
enrolled in a long term health study as teenagers and have been
followed for more than 20 years.
"This was a great data set to look at this because you get young men
who are teenagers and follow them into adulthood," Garfield said.
"And a good number of them are going to transition into fatherhood
so we could actually look at their depressive symptoms scores over
that time frame."
A total of 3,425 participants became fathers by the end of the study
period. Of those men, 2,739 of them lived with their child and 686
were nonresident fathers. The researchers also tracked the mental
health of the non-fathers for comparison.
The participants had answered survey questions at several points in
their teen years, 20s and 30s, and those responses were used to
score their symptoms of depression.
When the researchers compared the men's depression scores, they
found that new resident fathers had the lowest scores and new
nonresident fathers had the highest depression scores while
non-fathers fell in between.
But during their children's first five years of life, the resident
fathers experienced a 68 percent increase in their depression
scores, on average.
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"That was significant in the study and it's significant when you
think about the child development and the development of the family
and the importance that fathers play," Garfield said.
"Fathers' roles are changing and we know their time spent with
children has nearly doubled from 1965 to 2011, and that they're
spending more time, often, than their counterparts in the UK and
Australia," he said.
"Part of that is mothers who are more frequently in the workplace
and it's also a new ideal of fatherhood that men are wanting to
spend time with their kids," he said.
"So a study like this puts fathers on the map and where we need to
focus our energy because ultimately as a pediatrician I see children
thrive when parents thrive and if we can make sure that the moms and
dads are doing well in that transition to parenthood, there's a
better chance of the child doing well," he said.
"Young fathers who are depressed are more likely to disengage from
care and involvement with the infant," said James Paulson, "and
they're more likely to use harsh parenting tactics like spanking,
yelling, screaming and so forth, which we know is not helpful for
child development and it could be harmful in some situations."
Paulson, a psychology researcher at Old Dominion University in
Norfolk, Virginia, added that young fathers who are depressed tend
to have more difficulty in relationships, which might lead to family
difficulties when parents can't communicate well.
"They can't function together properly and they have difficulty
co-parenting and working in the child's best interest," he said.
Pediatrics, online April 14, 2014.
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