Fatherhood can be stressful for any man, but research shows that for first-time fathers, becoming a dad is especially tough. A new study finds that during the first five years of parenthood, young dads saw a 68 percent increase in depressive symptoms.
The findings are concerning given that the symptoms arose during those critical first years of a child’s life, and researchers worry about the effects paternal depression can have on a child’s well-being.
“It’s not just new moms who need to be screened for depression; dads are at risk, too,” Craig Garfield, an associate professor in pediatrics and medical social sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Parental depression has a detrimental effect on kids, especially during those first key years of parent-infant attachment. We need to do a better job of helping young dads transition through that time period.”
The phenomenon of postpartum depression in women is well documented and affects between 10 and 15 percent of new mothers. But less is known about how young dads are affected by depression as they enter parenthood.
The new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that depression affected fathers around 25 years of age who lived with their children 5 to 10 percent of the time.
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Researchers from Northwestern University conducted the study over 20 years starting in 1994. They used data collected from more than 10,000 adolescent males. In 2004 and 2005, 3,425 of them, or about one in three, were fathers between the ages of 24 and 32. Eight out of 10 of the fathers lived with their children.
The men who were surveyed were asked to report on their experiences with depression, including symptoms such as sadness, difficulty focusing and inability to enjoy life. Researchers note that when young dads suffer from these symptoms, it harms their relationships with their kids. Depressed dads read and interact with their children less, are more likely to neglect their kids and resort to corporal forms of punishment at higher rates.
"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," Garfield told USA Today. "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."
Previous research has found similar rates of depression in young fathers. A 2010 study by the Medical Research Council noted that one in 28 dads experienced depressive symptoms in the first year after their child was born.
There’s no one reason or explanation for why young dads are at a greater risk for depression. Researchers speculate that factors such as strained relationships with a partner, having a partner who also experiences postpartum depression and financial struggles all play a role.