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Fatherhood and mental health

When people think about depressed parents, it’s almost instinctive to think about post-partum moms. Certainly, post-partum depression is a serious issue, but my co-author Garrett Pace and I wanted to go one step further. We asked if moms and dads are at similar risk for depression based on the kinds of parental roles they take on (like a step-parent or residential biological parent). Our work, which appeared in the journal Social Work, found some interesting gender differences. For example, stepfathers have a high risk for depression, particularly if they have a biological child from another relationship who they are not currently living with. Depression for stepfathers is even more likely when they have a child with their new partner, a so-called “cement child.” As we have spoken to reporters, colleagues, students, friends, and others about our findings, we almost invariably get asked this question: “Do dads get depressed, too?”

The answer is an unequivocal yes. Unfortunately, however, the stereotype persists that depression is only a women’s problem (see, for example, this recent blog post by a medical professor). Depression in men and fathers is a serious issue, one that is worthy of consideration by both scholars and mental health professionals. The National Institutes for Mental Health (NIMH) recently estimated that 10% of men and 12-15% of fathers would experience clinical depression in their lifetimes. Fathers with residential biological children can become stressed from trying to balance work responsibilities and the desire to be an involved, nurturing, and loving dad. Men with non-residential children are often unclear about how to parent because clear norms do not exist regarding their roles. Stepfathers have great difficulty for similar reasons. We found that stepfathers, for example, were 56% more likely to be depressed than fathers living with their biological children.

These statistics have real-world significance. Depression has important consequences for both parents and children. Depression impacts health, daily functioning, and the overall well-being of parents. In turn, depressed moms and dads are often less warm, affectionate, and involved in parenting than non-depressed parents. This has wide-ranging effects: internalized and externalized behavioral problems, health issues, academic achievement, and risky behavior are all more likely in children with a depressed parent. Fathers in particular may externalize their depressive symptoms through anger, substance abuse, or other negative behaviors. More research is needed on how the depression of fathers and mothers has similar or different effects on children. We also need more work on how depression manifests itself differently in moms and dads.

Our research shows that parenting, despite its many rewards, can also be very stressful. Yet many parents do not get help for their emotional problems. In fact, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) reports that parents are less likely to get mental health help than non-parents. Perhaps many parents who experience stress and depression around their parenting think that their feelings are stigmatizing. Certainly, someone who is a “good parent” should not be having such feelings. But the fact of the matter is that parenting is rewarding, stressful, and sometimes depressing. We are particularly concerned with fathers because men are already far less likely than women to get help for their emotional or psychological problems. We hope that more parents realize that parenting is stressful and that professionals help normalize these feelings among their patients and clients.

We also want to make social workers, psychologists, and other mental health professionals acutely aware of the various social factors that influence the well-being of their clients. Too often, we send unwelcoming messages to our clients by not acknowledging their circumstances or the important issues in their lives.

I’m always struck by the example of a fathering class that took place in a pink room with pictures of breastfeeding mothers on the walls. Let’s ensure that we are sending the right message to our potential clients and make resources and help available to all. That is the true spirit of social work: understanding context and welcoming all.

Image Credit: “Depression” by Ryan Melaugh. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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