As a father, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and families, and a co-founding Director of Love, Dad: Support for Fathers and Families, a non-profit advocating for father-inclusion in perinatal and early childhood services, I know that dads matter.
Research overwhelmingly confirms the tremendous benefits of father involvement with family. However, there is a lack of father-inclusion in family-based policies and practices of perinatal and early childhood health, mental health, and education, which are meant to improve outcomes for children and families. This actually disadvantages mothers and children and ends up undermining the expansive role fathers can play in the promotion of family resilience.
In the United States, we are failing families by ignoring the impact of paternal perinatal mental health. The policies and practices that overlook the value fathers have to families also miss the mental health, parenting, and relationship challenges fathers experience. This breakdown further perpetuates gender inequity and leaves families more vulnerable.
In studies conducted throughout the United States and abroad, in diverse communities, researchers have found that 10 percent of new fathers experience mental health challenges, a rate comparable to new mothers. That means that in Los Angeles, where I live and work, approximately 415,000 boys and men currently living in the county will experience a paternal perinatal mental health disorder in their lifetime. The rate for fathers increases to 25 to 50 percent when mothers suffer from clinical depression.
What does paternal depression look like, and why is it important to identify? Often expressed as irritability, withdrawal, and substance abuse, depression creates disconnect in mind, body, and soul, and with loved ones. This unique expression of depression is likely an artifact of the social pressures boys and men feel to conform to hypermasculinity by warding off vulnerability. As my team has seen first-hand in our programs, left untreated, fathers can struggle to bond with their babies and engage in less positive growth-promoting ways with their children. It also can increase the likelihood of intimate partner violence and child abuse.
Around the country, there are excellent services for families focusing on mothers and children, but there are far fewer efforts focused on men.
Having worked in families’ homes with fathers and babies over the past few years, pre-Covid, I have experienced first-hand the extraordinary potential of services to transform the lives of fathers and families. We don’t need to wait until Father’s Day to think about what dads bring to our lives. Let’s start now.