Becoming a dad can be emotionally tough for any guy, but especially for young, first-time fathers. A new study finds that the first five years of parenthood — key attachment and bonding years for a child — may be the riskiest for young dads when it comes to developing depression.
Symptoms of depression increased on average by 68% over the first five years of fatherhood for men who were around 25 years old when they became fathers and lived with their children, according to the study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.
"There's been a significant body of literature describing the effect of mother's depression on child development, and the health care system has tried to rise to the challenge of identifying mothers with depression," says Craig Garfield, an associate professor in pediatrics and medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "Fathers have not been on the radar screen until recently. Now we know that ... right around the time of the birth is an important time to try and capture and screen those dads."
Paternal depression affects 5% to 10% of fathers, Garfield says, while about 10% to 15% of new mothers will experience maternal depression.
Garfield's previous research has shown depressed dads will use more corporal punishment, read less and interact less with their children, and are more likely to be stressed and neglect their children. Compared with the children of non-depressed dads, these children are at risk for having poor language and reading development and more behavior problems and conduct disorders.
For the new study, researchers used data collected from 10,253 adolescent males enrolled in a nationally representative study examining social and behavioral health. Started in 1994, it followed them over nearly 20 years into adulthood. In 2004-2005, 3,425 of the participants (33%) were fathers, ages 24 to 32. The majority of fathers (80%) lived with their children.
Throughout the course of the survey, all participants reported on depression symptoms (sadness, difficulty focusing, inability to enjoy life) via responses to a 10-question depression scale.
In addition to finding the increase in symptoms of depression among resident fathers in the early years of fatherhood, researchers found that young fathers who did not live with their children showed an increase in symptoms in the years before entering fatherhood but not during the first five years. That finding was not statistically significant, perhaps because of the small sample size, but it warrants additional research, Garfield says.
The finding that black and Hispanic fathers showed higher levels of depressive symptoms compared with white fathers is in line with other studies of paternal depression, he says, and suggests these groups of fathers could be at significant risk of screening for depression.
"The next question is why are there these differences and how can we avoid making a one-size-fits-all approach to paternal depression and actually tailor something to fit individual needs?" he says.
"Parenting young children is rewarding but also one of the most difficult jobs in the world, so it's not surprising that both mothers and fathers experience greater depression during the transition to parenthood," says Lisa Harvey, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who was not involved with the study.
"Young children require an enormous amount of care, and it can be stressful to juggle parenting, work, extra housework, all while getting less sleep," she says. "Having a child can also cause financial strain and difficulties in the couple's relationship. All of these things can put parents at risk for becoming depressed."
The new study "adds to a desperately needed research and policy agenda that deals with the mental health of fathers," says Michael Weitzman, a professor of pediatrics and global health at the New York University School of Medicine. His previous research found that two of the biggest predictors of depression in fathers was living in a household with a depressed mother and having a child with emotional or behavioral problems.