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Depressed dads can lead to mental health problems in children

Heather Rudow February 27, 2012

(Photo:Flickr/babasteve)

Previous research has found that children’s brains can develop differently if their mother is depressed or stressed while pregnant, but a new study suggests there is a link between children with emotional or behavioral problems and the fact that their fathers are suffering from depression.

“While the finding of increased rates of mental health problems among children whose fathers had depressive symptoms was not surprising in our earlier study, the fact that no prior large scale studies had investigated this issue is truly remarkable, as is the finding that one out of every four children with both a mother and a father with symptoms of depression have mental health problems,” said lead author Michael Weitzman.

The researchers used a nationally representative sample of households comprised of 7,247 families with mothers, fathers and children. They found that of the children who showed evidence of emotional or behavioral problems, 6 percent did not have either a mother or a father with depressive symptoms; 15 percent had only a father with depressive symptoms; 20 percent had only a mother with depressive symptoms; and 25 percent had both parents with depressive symptoms.

“Using previously widely used measures of fathers’, mothers’ and children’s physical and mental health, as well as numerous other family and child characteristics, such as maternal and paternal age, race, marital status and educational attainment, as well as child age, these data demonstrate the following factors being independently associated with increased rates of fathers’ depressive symptoms: living in poverty (1.5 times as common as not living in poverty); living with a child with special health care needs (1.4 times as common); living with a mother with depressive symptoms (5.75 times as common); poor paternal physical health (3.31 times as common); and paternal unemployment (6.50 times as common). … While the findings of poverty, having a child with special health care needs and living with a mother with depressive symptoms are not unexpected, the fact that fathers’ unemployment is by far the strongest predictor of depressive symptoms is a brand new and unique finding with profound implications for the health and development of children in this time of extremely high rates of unemployment.”

The results reported that overall, 6 percent of all fathers had scores that suggested they were suffering from depressive symptoms.

Says Weitzman of the study, “The findings reported in the current paper demonstrate factors that could help identify fathers who might benefit from clinical screening for depression, and we believe the results are particularly salient given the current financial crisis and concurrent increase in unemployment in the USA. Also of serious concern is the fact that living with a mother who herself has depressive symptoms is almost associated with almost as large an increased rate of paternal depressive symptoms as is paternal unemployment. Fathers play profoundly important roles in the lives of children and families and are all too often forgotten in our efforts to help children. These new findings, we hope, will be useful to much needed efforts to develop strategies to identify and treat the very large number of fathers with depression.”

Source: NYU Langone Medical Center

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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