May 15, 2009

THAT'S MEN: Teenagers whose fathers are depressed are at a higher risk of going on to develop psychological problems, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

SOMETIMES ADVANCES have unexpected effects.

Take the greater involvement by fathers in the upbringing of their children. A good thing, no doubt about it. Naturally, this means that the father gets to have a greater effect on the wellbeing of the children than was the case with fathers of previous generations.

On the other hand, if the father has mental health problems or is an alcoholic, this also has a greater effect on the children than would have been the case in the days when father was a largely absent figure.

I am not writing this to make life more difficult for fathers who are already suffering the pain of depression or struggling with alcoholism. But I want to emphasise the importance for fathers of getting treatment for these problems.

A recent article in the Lancet pointed out that the effect of mothers’ mental health on their children has long been studied. Less attention has been paid to the effect of fathers’ mental health. It’s time for that to change.

The article reported a study by researchers at the University of Oxford who were interested in how the mental health of fathers affected their children.

They found that children whose fathers were depressed eight weeks after their birth had a 10-20 per cent higher chance of later developing emotional problems or behavioural problems.

This, presumably, might be due to ongoing depression in the father and not just to the fact that the father was depressed two months after the birth of the baby. For instance, teenagers whose fathers are depressed are at a higher risk themselves of depression and other psychological issues.

They also found that if a father is affected by a generalised anxiety disorder – excessive, uncontrollable anxiety and worry – their children’s chances of developing this disorder are doubled. Among men, about two in 100 are affected by generalised anxiety disorder, so a doubling of the chances of its developing in the child still makes its likelihood pretty low.

Where fathers are alcoholics, their children are more likely in the future to behave in anti-social ways, to be aggressive or destructive for example, according to various studies. They are also more likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs themselves.

These effects are particularly found in sons. Indeed, children whose fathers are alcoholics are more likely to be depressed, to do badly at school, to have difficulties in making relationships and so on. The disruptive effect of a father’s alcoholism on a household, I think, makes all this very understandable.

Could I point out that the phrase “more likely” which I’ve used a lot in this article means just that. It doesn’t mean that these effects are inevitable or even that they apply to most of the people concerned.

I think it is important to say again that this is not something for which the fathers concerned need torment themselves. What it means is that they need to seek treatment and those who know that they have these problems should encourage them to seek treatment.

It also means that the mental health services need to be responsive to the psychological needs of these men.

As the UK mental health charity Mind, puts it: “Even though men and women experience mental health problems in roughly equal numbers, men are much less likely to be diagnosed and treated for it. One in three men with depression and anxiety feels embarrassed about asking for help.

“We want to encourage men to come forward and seek support for their mental health problems and their emotional support. We also want the health service to respond appropriately to males’ needs.”

These words are as true in Ireland as in the UK.

As I have mentioned in an earlier column, Mind Week, focusing on men’s mental health, started on Saturday. If you look up the Mind website ( you will find lots of useful information on the subject and indeed on almost any other mental health issue you can think of.

For more information on the research mentioned here, go to the BBC website ( and enter “Fathers’ depression” in the search box.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy


This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times