How a father’s mental wellbeing affects his children

How a father’s mental wellbeing affects his children

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Key points

  • New Australian research has found children face a 42 per cent higher risk of depression if their father is depressed.
  • The more severe the depression, the higher the risk.
  • Researchers say it highlights the need for whole family interventions as well as more support for fathers. 

When Matt Grant found himself sitting in his car, crying before work, he recognised something was wrong, but he didn’t know what. “I was struggling big time. I was hiding my emotions, and it was building up,” says the leadership facilitator from Sydney’s Northern beaches.

It took Grant, then 20, about six months to understand what was happening. He had spoken with his mum, and eventually sought help from a doctor, receiving a diagnosis.

Matt Grant with his children Archie, 9, Harry, 6, and Jack, 3, at their home in Collaroy, Sydney.Credit: Dion Georgopoulos

He came to realise he wasn’t alone and others understood the depth of the pain he was in. It meant everything. It also gave him hope.

In the 15 years since that day, Grant has worked on developing the tools to manage his mental health and pushed himself to reach out when he wants to hide. Now, a father of three sons aged three, six and nine, he’s glad he has: “Otherwise, I don’t know how I’d be as a dad right now.”

If he hadn’t addressed it, he suspects that, like many other dads he sees struggling, he’d be self-medicating, spending more time at work or avoiding his family: “I do see that happening … because they don’t know how to deal with their kids when they’re suffering. It’s really, really sad.”

Fathers’ mental wellbeing, as well as its impact on their children, is often overlooked.

A new Australian-led global review of more than seven million fathers highlights just how much their mental wellbeing matters.

Senior author and head of the Curtin School of Population Health professor Rosa Alati says that the associations between a mother’s mental health and the children’s mental health are well known.

Previous research has found children whose mothers have depression are three to four times more likely to develop depression than children whose mothers are not depressed.

Less research, however, has explored the relationship between the father’s mental health and their children’s. “There is a gap in the literature,” says Alati. “We don’t look to the fathers enough.”

So, for this review, Alati and a team of researchers analysed the data from 16 international studies over the last 20 years, and found children faced a 42 per cent higher risk of depression if their father was depressed.

Some studies looked at dads with symptoms of depression while others involved those with clinical depression. The more severe the depression, the higher the risk.

Separate research has suggested that genetics are responsible for 40 per cent of the risk for depression. How depression can affect a parent’s sensitivity toward the child and the security of the attachment can also play a role as can an increased risk of substance abuse or divorce resulting from the illness.

“It’s the usual nature/nurture debate,” says Alati. “It’s probably a combination of both… [but] it is not easy to disentangle genetic contributions to other life course contributions.”

A review of over 7 million dads found a 42 per cent increased risk of depression if their fathers also suffered depression.Credit: Dion Georgopoulo

It is a reminder, she says, of the importance of interventions that support the whole family, not just the individuals who are suffering: “Children don’t live in a vacuum.”

Jennifer Ericksen, a clinical psychologist and program manager at the Parent Infant Research Institute, says there is significantly less support available for dads, however more programs are being developed including DadSpace, a world first online treatment program for dads.

About 10 per cent of new fathers experience significant depression and debilitating symptoms including low mood, loss of interest or enjoyment, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite and weight, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of self-harm. Many more suffer from milder symptoms and a range of negative emotions such as anger, worry, confusion, and irritability.

“Seeking help for depression is indeed likely to reduce the impact of their depression on their family/children and men should be encouraged to seek help,” she says. “Depression is a treatable.”

Still, many fathers remain reluctant to seek help when they are in trouble.

For Grant, speaking out and seeking help make him optimistic about his future and the future of his sons.

“The odds are one of my kids is going to have it,” says the ambassador for the Heart on My Sleeve movement, which encourages people to be honest about how they feel. “Fortunately, I’ll have the right tools to help them.”

Those tools include being open with his sons about his emotions, so they can be open about theirs; creating mental space on the days he’s not doing so well, by sitting in the car for a few minutes to do breath work before walking into the house; having healthy outlets including basketball with mates; being “a bit selfish” at times to avoid burnout; and checking in regularly with his wife.

They have adopted a strategy from American author and researcher, Brene Brown, of sharing their energy and patience level out of 10 each day: “Being open and honest helps us as a family and helps us have each other’s backs.”

There are days, Grant admits to feeling in a funk and not wanting to open up. “Sometimes you feel like you’re constantly letting everyone down, and you want to avoid burdening people with your problems,” he says.

But he has come to realise that the more he tries to hide or ignore what he is feeling, the more likely he is to snap and lose patience with his kids. So, he does what he needs to do as an act of love for his family as well as for himself.

“Reaching out and having outlets is going to make me feel that little bit better and breathe a bit easier, so I can show up for my kids.”

The Parent-Infant Research Institute is currently recruiting dads with a baby under 12 months, who are not receiving any other treatment and who have depressive symptoms, for a new study. Find out more here.

Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 and DadSpace.

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