Women aren’t the only ones at risk for depression and in need of screening services when a new baby comes into their lives. Young fathers face significant mental health challenges as well, according to a new study.
Published in the May issue of Pediatrics, researchers found that fathers who live in the same households as their children experience a decrease in depressive symptoms in the period immediately before their children are born. However, depressive symptoms among young fathers, who were around 25 years old when they became fathers, increased an average of 68 percent throughout their children’s first five years of life.
The study notes that depressed fathers are more likely to experience parenting-related stress, more likely to use corporal punishment and neglect their children, and less likely to interact with their sons and daughters. As a result, their children may be at higher risk of social problems throughout life, psychiatric problems later in life, and of experiencing delays in language and reading development. According to lead author Craig Garfield, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the study is the first to pinpoint when young fathers face an increased risk of depression, which could help inform more precise and targeted interventions.
“It’s not just new moms who need to be screened for depression, dads are at risk, too,” Garfield said in a news release. “Parental depression has a detrimental effect on kids, especially during those first key years of parent-infant attachment. We need to do a better job of helping young dads transition through that time period.”
To conduct the study, Garfield and his colleagues examined data from more than 10,600 young men who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The Pediatrics study found that young fathers who do not live with their children experienced high levels of depressive symptoms before their children are born, with such symptoms decreasing during the years of early fatherhood. That’s in contrast to fathers who live with their children — described as resident fathers in the study — who experience fewer symptoms before their children arrived and higher levels in the years after birth. Black and Hispanic young fathers experienced more depressive symptoms than white fathers — a finding that study authors warned may result in a “clinically significant rise” and may merit special attention.
Identifying and helping fathers struggling with depression could have a positive domino effect, improving health for the entire family, writes Garfield and co-authors Greg Duncan, Joshua Rutsohn, Thomas McDade, Emma Adam, Rebekah Levine Coley and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale. However, reaching such fathers and getting them into appropriate treatment is a challenge, as the study notes that men ages 18 to 44 years old are less likely than women to interact with the health care system, have a primary care doctor or have health insurance. Though, the Affordable Care Act could start improving those numbers. Plus, the study noted that fathers often accompany their children to pediatric visits, which could make such clinical settings an ideal place for reaching young fathers at risk.
“This is a wakeup call for anyone who knows a young man who has recently become a new father,” Garfield said. “Be aware of how he is doing during his transition into fatherhood. If he is feeling extreme anxiety or blues or not able to enjoy things in life as he previously did, encourage him to get help.”
To read the full study, visit Pediatrics.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.