We’ve been ignoring the problem of dads and depression for decades—at a huge cost to kids

Science is increasingly recognizing the toll that the transition to parenthood can take on new dads.
Science is increasingly recognizing the toll that the transition to parenthood can take on new dads.
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Being a new mom is incredibly tough—particularly in the US, where women may lack access to paid leave, parenting support programs, and affordable childcare and health-care services. But research suggests that we need to start offering a lot more support and care to men making the transition to parenthood, too.

The past decade or so has seen increasing awareness of how important fathers are to their children’s development. With that understanding has come a renewed focus on new dads’ mental health, which can be vulnerable after the birth of a child. In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) began encouraging pediatricians to screen new dads for post-natal parental depression, a condition most commonly associated with new moms. That’s a good step. But the fact that it took so long for the recommendation to be put in place is indicative of a bigger problem: The lack of attention, funding, and research directed towards the health risks that can affect new fathers, and by extension, their entire families.

Dads uniquely impact their kids’ development

Evidence (pdf) shows that engaged fathers have a positive impact their kids’ social, behavioral, psychological and cognitive development. Dads who are highly involved with their kids have been shown to have children with better cognitive competence; increased social skills and capacity for empathy; better self-control and self-esteem; better interactions with siblings; and better grades and academic adjustment.

The first, foundational study of dads’ roles in their children’s development was published in 2004 by the AAP Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. For the first time in the US, the AAP offered concrete advice for pediatricians to encourage fathers’ involvement in family life. Tips include expressly welcoming fathers to well-child visits and thanking them for coming, and educating new dads about how breastfeeding works and what they can do to support it.

Just as dads who take an active role in their children’s lives can help kids reach their full potential, less engaged dads can harm their kids’ development. In some cases, the underlying cause of that lack of engagement may be undiagnosed depression. Depressed dads are more likely to spank their kids. They’re also less likely to read to them, which may hamper their child’s cognitive development and literacy skills. And prior studies have shown that the children of depressed fathers have an increased risk for depression during adolescence. That’s why it’s so important to keep a close eye on fathers’ mental health.

Dads experience postpartum depression, too

Postpartum depression affects nearly 15% of new moms. The good news is that the medical community has gotten better at screening and treating it. As a result, the condition’s prevalence rate among moms has declined by about 25% in 27 US states since 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With any luck, screening for depression in dads may have a similar effect. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics screened both moms and dads for depression during well-child care visits in community health care centers in Indianapolis, Indiana. Parents of babies who responded to a prescreening form were given the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, which assesses maternal depression, every 90 days during the child’s first 15 months of life.

According to the study, fathers screened positive for depression almost as often as mothers did; 4.4% of fathers screened positive, compared to 5% of mothers.

The research has some self-acknowledged limitations. The fact that it only screened for depression among parents who responded to the prescreening form means it probably missed some cases of paternal depression among dads who hadn’t filled the forms out. Another limitation is that the study was conducted on a mostly publicly-insured group of parents, which is not necessarily representative of the broader US population.

But this isn’t the first time a study has suggested that paternal depression rates can be almost as high as moms’. Other studies have suggested that postpartum depression may occur in somewhere between 7% to just over 10% of new fathers in the US. Hormonal shifts caused by pregnancy and birth can be a trigger for depression in some women. But depression following the birth of a child can affect all parents who experience social isolation, sleep deprivation, and stress. ”Both men and women, birth parents and adoptive ones all experience postpartum depression at about the same rates when a new baby arrives in their lives,” Sara Rosenquist, a clinical health psychologist who studies postpartum depression, wrote in an email to Quartz.

Paying attention to dads is good for moms

It’s important to take the health concerns of new dads seriously for the sake of their partners as well. Father involvement during pregnancy is correlated with mothers being 1.5 times more likely to receive first-trimester prenatal care and with lower rates of infant mortality. Fathers have also been shown to be a positive support system for moms who choose to breastfeed their newborns. And a father suffering from depression may have an impact on his partners’ mental health, too: A 2016 study showed that “mothers with prenatally depressed partners showed worsening depressive symptoms whereas mothers with prenatally non-depressed partners showed an improving symptom course.”

Mothers and fathers can contribute differently, but equally, to their child’s development. Studies have shown that fathers are more likely to play with preschoolers than mothers, who tend to guide or teach kids of that age, and that the quality of interactions, as measured through the child’s heart rate, differs between a child and its father or its mother.

So what can be done for new dads? Rosenquist says that screening for depression isn’t enough on its own. As many medical professionals don’t have a lot of training in managing adults’ mental health issues, depressed dads could be slipping through the cracks. And identifying depression in men can be particularly challenging. “Depression in fathers looks different from depression in mothers, and we’ve known this for a while,” says Rosenquist. Women are more likely to report feeling sad, or crying a lot, she tells Quartz, while men are more likely to feel angry, violent, and socially isolated. New dads may not realize they’re depressed, but they still need help.

Another way of looking at this problem, says Daniel Singley, a psychologist and the director of The Center for Men’s Excellence, which offers counseling for new dads, is to focus on “how we socialize boys and adolescents.” “If we make it okay for them to do things like have emotions, focus on relationships, be better at direct, assertive communication, and handling conflict,” he says, “we’re building better boys and we’re not going to have to ‘fix’ broken men and dads down the line.”

Most importantly, it’s time to retire cultural attitudes that assume that the mental and physical health impacts of having kids are only relevant to women. To do justice to the full potential of both children and their parents, we need to acknowledge both the importance of dads and the fact that they’re susceptible to health risks, too. As Rosenquist says, “we talk a good game about family values, but we don’t value the family.”

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.