Young fathers may be at increased risk of depression symptoms after their baby arrives, all the way through to the child’s kindergarten, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that for men who become fathers in their 20s and live with their children, depression symptoms tend to rise during the first five years of the child’s life.
Experts stressed that the findings don’t mean that young dads are destined to be clinically depressed. The study didn’t prove that early fatherhood causes depressive symptoms — it only showed an association between the two.
“But this does show us a time period where fathers are at increased risk,” said lead researcher Dr. Craig Garfield, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
The new research was published online April 14 in Pediatrics and in the May print issue of the journal.
Many studies have looked into the risk of postpartum depression for mothers, but research into fathers’ mental health during this period is much newer, Garfield said. Studies so far suggest that 5 percent to 10 percent of new dads develop clinical depression after the baby arrives.
What’s more, researchers have found that when fathers are depressed, children tend to have more behavioral problems and weaker reading and language skills.
It’s not clear what role dads’ depression plays in those problems. But “when parents thrive, children thrive,” Garfield said, so both parents’ mental health is important.
For the new study, Garfield’s team used data from a long-running project that began following more than 20,000 U.S. teens in the 1990s. Every few years, the participants completed a 10-question screening tool on depression symptoms — asking whether they felt unhappy, tired or disliked, for example.
Of the more than 10,600 young men in the study, one-third had become fathers by the time they were aged 24 to 32. And, Garfield’s team found, dads’ depression scores showed a clear shift over time.
Among fathers living with their children, depression scores rose by an average of 68 percent over the first five years of their child’s life. Fathers who weren’t living with their children showed a different trend: Their depression symptoms rose after high school, and then started to decline after they became fathers.
While that 68 percent rise sounds big, it is an average for the group, Garfield said. And for many men, even that much of a change would not be enough to push them into clinical depression.
“Many men started off with very low [scores], so even with that increase they probably wouldn’t screen positive for depression,” Garfield noted. “But some would.”
Why do some men get depressed after the baby arrives? “We really don’t understand the reasons yet,” Garfield said.
With new moms, experts suspect that depression arises from a mix of stress and the biological changes that come with pregnancy and childbirth. Men’s bodies aren’t affected by fatherhood, but their lives definitely change, noted Eric Lewandowski, of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
New fathers may feel added financial strain or stress on their marriage, for example, said Lewandowski, who was not involved in the study.
“The transition can be a tough one,” he said, “especially around the age at which these men became fathers — in their mid-20s.”
It’s not clear, Lewandowski noted, whether the findings might be different for men who become fathers in their 30s or beyond.
Both he and Garfield said the results call attention to fathers’ mental health. “Parenting is a team sport, and understanding how men transition into fatherhood is important, too,” Garfield said.
There are no guidelines on when or how to screen new fathers for depression. But more research into the issue could change that, Garfield said.
For now, Lewandowski said it’s important for new parents to be prepared for the reality of having a child. “It’s not all roses. It’s tough,” he noted.
On the other hand, he said, there’s “the joy of having a child,” and it’s hard for a scientific study to measure that and “weigh” it against the less positive aspects of parenting. And maybe for most moms and dads, Lewandowski said, the joy and the difficulties can “co-exist.”
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on depression in men.
SOURCES: Craig Garfield, M.D., associate professor, pediatrics, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago; R. Eric Lewandowski, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor, child and adolescent psychiatry, NYU Langone Medical Center, Child Study Center, New York City; May 2014 Pediatrics