Strong evidence that depressed dads should speak up and seek help
Depression can interrupt and compound life's manageable stresses in countless ways making the business of regular life a constant struggle. For men, fathers in particular, those struggles may manifest themselves differently than in women. Science is finally catching up with the way men process and act out their most difficult feelings and the impact that has on parenting which, it seems, is massive.
Dr. Kevin Shafer, a professor of social work at Brigham Young University, has been researching fathers and feelings. His research, published last month, yielded compelling evidence that paternal depression has a unique effect on behavioral problems in children in ways maternal depression simply doesn't. It's not that clinically sad moms don't impact kids, they do. But the negative effects are trickier to suss out because women tend to internalize negative emotions like dejection and despair. Not so with men.
"Men are more likely to show anger and frustration. Children are going to notice, and it's going to affect them," says Shafer. Dr. Michael Myers, a psychiatrist and clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia agrees. He says men are far more likely to "act out" their depression than women. While certainly true for men from previous generations, men today still often fail to recognize their emotional suffering or simply mask it to feign strength. Myers says that inability or reluctance to manage darker emotions takes a toll. Often, it results in a festering momentum of irritability, infidelity, substance abuse, and in certain cases violence, both verbal and physical.
The outcome for kids growing up in an angry home, adolescents in particular, is they acted out too. Higher levels of anger and aggression were noted as were internal behavioural issues like anxiety, depression and withdrawal. Parents with mental health issues often raise kids with mental health issues and although both nature and nurture play a role, here Shafer underlines paternal nurturing, or its absence when fathers battle depression.
For Shafer, his work isn't about demonizing dads. Instead, it represents an important shift. One he hopes will improve parenting strategies for struggling fathers – something that's at the heart of his academic focus. "As dads become more involved in their children's lives, we thought this was an important question with significant implications for families." He's clear to note that though "many studies look at moms who are depressed and how they impact children, very few looked at how depressed fathers influence their children."
That Shafer's research was done at BYU dovetails nicely with a story involving their star athlete, Tanner Mangum. The quarterback recently came forward to talk openly about his personal battle with depression. Shafer says prominent male figures, especially ones perceived by others as "men's men", coming forward and sharing their struggles with mental health is pivotal in erasing the stigma (something that comes up so often with mental health it borders on cliche). More importantly, as more men get brave enough to say something, it makes it easier for others to ask for help. Shafer says that won't just benefit them, it'll benefit "their families and their communities" too.