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Unemployed fathers six times more likely to be depressed, study finds

by Alexandra Gallucci
Feb 29, 2012

Paternal depression by the numbers:

•    About 10 percent of fathers experience depression                                                          
•    In the three to six months months after a child is born, the rate of depression in fathers may be as high as 25 percent                                                                                                   
•    Unemployment triples the risk of mental disorders                                                 
•    Mothers are twice as likely as fathers to suffer from depression                                           

Source: David Rosenthal and colleagues at New York University School of Medicine, Maternal and Child Health Journal  

Not having a job is the single biggest predictor of depression in fathers, according to a study publihsed this week in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

Depressive symptoms were present in 34 percent of unemployed men and 4.5 percent of employed men in the study. Being unemployed increases the risk of fathers having depressive symptoms by more than six times, researchers from New York University School of Medicine found.

The results indicate that there is an element of fulfillment that people find in their work that means more than just survival and making money, said Dr. Michael Weitzman, one of the authors of the study and a professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine at NYU.

Paternal depression has been an understudied topic, often overshadowed by female depressive issues and postpartum depression, said Weitzman.

“Medicine has always focused on maternal depression and now there has been a shift, an epiphany, to focus on paternal depression,” said Dr. Jeff Goldhagen, a pediatrics professor at the University of Florida in Jacksonville.

This is the second study on paternal depression from researchers at the NYU School of Medicine. The first— released in November—found that fathers’ depressive symptoms are associated with increased rates of children’s behavioral or emotional problems.

Other factors found to contribute to depression in fathers include: poverty, paternal physical health problems, having a child with special health care needs and maternal depressive problems.

“We certainly know fathers are prone to depression as well and when a father is depressed there are a lot of negative implications for the family,” said Paul Rasmussen, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.

Depression in fathers can cause a variety of mental and behavioral issues in children, from Attention Deficit Disorder to depression. “When a parent is depressed, they disengage from their responsibilities as a child-care provider,” said Rasmussen. Children who feel like they are being ignored will naturally act out to gain the parent’s attention, through extreme behaviors.

Rasmusssen noted that depression is a normal human emotion that occurs when a person feels hopeless. A real challenge in treating depression is often trying to find the source of that hopelessness. In men, the idea of not being able to support their families financially can be a huge source of this feeling.

Men and women also react differently to depressive symptoms, which can make depression more difficult to recognize in men, Rasmussen said. While men often express these symptoms through anger, substance abuse, or other self-destructive behavior, women more typically exhibit symptoms of withdrawal and disengagement from social activities.

The research has initiated dialogue among pediatricians and mental health professionals. Doctors are now asking themselves what else has been missed in research of men in child-rearing roles, Goldhagen said. The challenge lies in finding ways to take the research and operationalize it in pediatric practice, he said.

Many pediatricians are now beginning to implement verbal screening for paternal depression when mothers make routine office visits. The goal is to make care accessible for men by providing them with referrals to mental health professionals, he said.