Becoming a father may raise a young man's risk of depression, according to a new U.S. study that suggests helping men at this stage could improve the wellbeing of entire families.
"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 said.
"We knew that paternal depression existed and it affects about 5 to 10 percent of dads - and there are seven 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, they say.
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 Reuters Health.
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.
"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.