Dad's mental health affects children too

NEW YORK Mon May 4, 2009 2:41pm EDT

A father plays with his son during sunrise at Kailua Beach in Hawaii, October 19, 2003. REUTERS/Lucy Pemoni

A father plays with his son during sunrise at Kailua Beach in Hawaii, October 19, 2003.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Pemoni

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Fathers' mental health problems may take a toll on their children's psychological well-being, particularly that of their sons, a new research review suggests.

The review, published online by The Lancet medical journal, found that when fathers had psychiatric conditions like major depression, drug or alcohol addiction, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their children were at increased risk of mental health problems.

Boys seemed particularly vulnerable to the effects of their fathers' depression, the study found. Sons of alcoholic fathers were at increased risk of serious behavioral problems and substance abuse.

The findings may not sound surprising, but they shed light on the ways in which fathers' mental well-being affects their children -- a subject that has been much less studied than the role of mothers' mental health, according to the researchers.

"I think the main message is that mental health problems affecting fathers are important, partly because of the impact on the men themselves, but also because they can impact on families, including children," said lead researcher Dr. Paul Ramchandani, of the University of Oxford in the UK.

Men are generally less likely than women to seek help for their mental health problems, Ramchandani told Reuters Health, but it is important that they do so.

An estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of men suffer from major depression. In their review, Ramchandani and colleague Dr. Lamprini Psychogiou found that when fathers are affected, their teenage children are at higher-than-average risk of depression and suicidal behavior.

Similarly, when fathers suffered from anxiety disorders like PTSD, substance abuse or bipolar disorder, their children were at heightened risk of developing those same conditions or other emotional and behavioral issues.

Furthermore, young children whose fathers become depressed soon after their birth -- a paternal form of postpartum depression -- have higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems.

The reasons are likely to involve genetic susceptibility, as well as environment and upbringing, according to the researchers.

Fathers in poor mental health may not, for example, be able to give their children the emotional support they need. They may also be unable to financially support the family, which creates another set of difficulties, the researchers point out.

The bottom line, according to Ramchandani, is that addressing fathers' psychiatric problems may help the family as well.

"We don't have the evidence to be completely sure that things will be better for their children if men get treatment," Ramchandani said. "But on the balance of findings, it seems likely that children will do better if their fathers are well."

SOURCE: The Lancet, online May 5, 2009.

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