Happy Fathers: Dad’s and Their Mental Health

With Fathers’ Day upon us this weekend, perhaps it’s time to think about what fathers need – not in the underwear, socks, and new fishing gear department, but more in terms of what really makes them happy.  What do fathers need to be happy, mentally healthy and to be well?

Proudly, a lot of recent useful research into the mental health of our Dads has been completed here in Australia.  When we go searching through the research on psychology and Dads there are a few themes that emerge:

  • Dads are subject to different gender and parenting norms
  • Dads experience mental illness differently to women
  • Men use different strategies to manage their health problems
  • Men may be more reluctant than women to seek help for health and welfare concerns. 

I have had the privilege of working with lots of fathers, but on reflection, this is usually because they have been made to see me because their child is at risk, their parenting is being reviewed by a welfare agency or because they are under some sort of Court Order to get some help.  Sadly, there is a subsection of fathers who are mandated to receive mental health treatment because they have come to the attention of authorities in relation to concerns about their parenting or because they may have broken the Law.

It’s really important to recognise, though, that while a very small minority of men (just like some women) with mental illness do pose a risk to their families, the majority do not.  It’s stigma that stops many good men receiving the mental health support that they need.

Fathers can come to the attention of mental health professionals:

  • Because they have a mental health concern and they are seeking help
  • Because they have just become a father and may have issues with peri-natal adjustment, or
  • Because their children or partner have mental health concerns

Across the world[i], men are less likely to present with symptoms of depression, but more likely to present with issues related to substance abuse, especially alcohol.  When we take a closer look at men who abuse alcohol, we often find co-existing depression and anxiety.

Researchers[ii] have tried to better understand the difference between fathers who seek help and fathers who do not.  It appears to come down to weighing up the pros and cons of “coming out” about their mental health.  Some fathers feel that coming out about their mental illness gives them greater support and less worry about being “found out”. Sadly, some have experienced stigma and wished that they had not told others. Clearly, when a Dad speaks about having mental health issues, we need to do more to make them feel supported and to keep them engaged in treatment so that they can return to a happy quality of life. 

It is also clear that we need more work done on educating the community about mental health issues for men. We need to think carefully about the way we give information to fathers.  While it has for a long time been thought that men are less help seeking than women, we do now know that men prefer to get information through lay advice[iii].  The challenge for professionals is to support lay people or easily available avenues of support to have the best professional and scientific advice that can be offered. Beyond Blue[iv] have some great resources for men.

We need to keep an eye on new Dads.  When parents become parents for the first time or for each subsequent new baby, there is a risk that the changes that occur around the new bub can throw coping systems into a spin. While we have been aware for some time now that mothers need support around a new bub, we now know that fathers can also be vulnerable at this point in time. 

Interestingly, Fathers have different risk factors around post-natal health than mothers.  With fathers, the researchers[v] have now established that there are some specific factors around Dad that will predict how he goes post-natally.  Dads are at higher risk of post natal mental health issues if they are have poor job quality, poor relationship quality, if their child’s mother is psychologically distressed, if they have a partner in a more prestigious occupation and if they have low parental self efficacy.

Another time that fathers come to the attention of mental health clinicians is when a father is parenting a child (or adult child) who has a mental illness or disability.  Fathers of children with mental health concerns often report feeling powerlessness and a sense that things are “a constant struggle”[vi].  It is thought that fathers are more likely than mothers to cope by keeping themselves distracted or busy, or want to find logical and rational answers – this can sometimes leave mum to cope with all of the feelings stuff[vii]. However, those who are working with fathers need to know that they will be more inclined to require and take on board practical information with regard to their child and they should make this available.

Generally speaking, Dad’s are happier when they have a job that values them, an intimate partnership that is healthy, when they have active involvement with their children and when they feel good about their capacity to parent.

When Dad’s mental health does get wobbly, mental health services need to provide family friendly services, they need to specifically ask after dad’s mental health and ask whether Dad is happy with his parenting or would like some help to learn to have more efficacy in their parenting.

So, my wish for fathers this fathers’ day is:

  • Workplaces that consider flexible arrangements for dads (as well as mums)
  • A supportive partner, family, mates and community
  • More available services for fathers themselves but also services for children that are father-inclusive
  • More available advice around mental health that is professional and scientific but that looks like it’s “mate’s” or “lay” advice as Dad’s seem to find information easier to digest in this way.

Have a happy Fathers’ Day, Dads!

Article by Shona Innes. Shona is a Clinical and Forensic psychologist who has worked for over 25 years helping children, teens and grownups (young and old).

[i] http://www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/242.pdf

[ii] https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/fatherhood-and-mental-illness

[iii] http://www.academia.edu/2528727/Youve_Got_Male_Advice-seeking_behaviour_in_men_using_the_online_advice_site_www.worldweary.com_

[iv] https://www.beyondblue.org.au/resources/for-me/men/depression-in-men

[v] Giallo, R., D'Esposito, F., Christensen, D., Mensah, F., Cooklin  AR., Wade, C., Lucas, N., Canterford, L., Nicholson, J.M (2012). Father mental health during the early parenting period: Results of an Australian population based longitudinal study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 47(12):1907-1916. doi: 10.1007/s00127-012-0510-0.

[vi] http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/01612840.2011.627106?journalCode=mhn

[vii] http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A%3A1025022518991?no-access=true