MONDAY, November 7, 2011 (Health.com) — Doctors and researchers have known for years that children are more likely to develop mental-health problems if their mother has struggled with depression. But what if it’s the father who’s depressed?
According to a new study—one of the first to examine mental-health patterns in a nationally representative sample of dads and kids—a child’s odds of developing emotional or behavioral problems increase by as much as 70% if the father shows signs of depression. That’s smaller than the increased risk associated with depressed moms, but it’s still cause for concern, researchers say.
“For years we’ve been studying maternal depression and how it affects children, but the medical community has done a huge disservice by ignoring fathers in this research,” says the study’s lead author, Michael Weitzman, MD, a professor of pediatric medicine at New York University, in New York City. “These findings reinforce what we already assumed—that fathers matter, too, and they matter quite a lot.”
The situation is predictably worse if both parents are depressed. Just 6% of children with two mentally healthy parents have serious emotional or behavioral problems, such as feeling sad or nervous, acting out at school, or clashing with family and peers, the study found. But that proportion increases to 11% if the father is depressed, 19% if the mother is depressed, and 25% if both parents are depressed—a strikingly high number, Dr. Weitzman says.
Although the study doesn’t prove that a parent’s depression directly causes problems in children, rather than vice versa, previous research on mothers and children has clearly shown that it’s generally mothers who influence kids’ mental health, not the other way around.
The idea that parents have an impact on their children’s mental health is a “no-brainer,” says Michael Brody, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Child Psychiatry and a visiting professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, in College Park.
Genes often play a role in passing depression and other mental-health problems from parent to offspring, Dr. Brody says, and the family environment is also important. “We learn how to adapt to situations by looking at our parents as models,” he says. “So if either parent is depressed, a kid is going to be influenced by this.”