Mass General Hospital

Harvard Medical School

Depression in Fathers Increases Risk for Adolescent Depression

According to a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics, adolescent depression is on the rise. In adolescents, the 12-month prevalence of major depression increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014.  Other studies have noted an increase in rates of suicide among adolescents, particularly girls; among girls aged 10-14, the suicide rate tripled between 1999 and 2014.

Because multiple studies have observed that depression in the mother can have a significant impact on her functioning and parenting skills and may increase the child’s vulnerability to depression and other psychiatric disorders, many family-based interventions have focused on targeting maternal depression as a means of reducing risk for depression in children and adolescents.   

A new study, however, suggests that paternal depression may exert as much of an effect on risk for adolescent depression as maternal depression.  In this study, researchers analyzed data from two-parent families included in two prospective cohorts in Ireland (Growing up in Ireland [GUI]) and the United Kingdom (Millennium Cohort Study [MCS]). Parental depressive symptoms were measured when children were 7 (in the MCS cohort) or 9 (in the GUI cohort) years of age using the short eight-item version of the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D).  Adolescent depressive symptoms were measured at age 13 years in the GUI cohort and age 14 years in the MCS cohort using the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ).

After adjusting for potential confounding factors, including maternal depression, the researchers observed that for every 3-point (one standard deviation) increase in depressive symptom ratings in the father, there was an associated 0.2-point increase in the adolescent’s depression score. The magnitude of the effect was similar to that observed in adolescents exposed to maternal depression.  In the GUI cohort, the association between paternal and adolescent depressive symptoms was stronger for female than for male adolescents; no difference was observed in the MCS cohort.  The association was observed whether or not the father was biologically related to the child.

This is the largest study to date investigating the impact of paternal depression on risk for depression in the child.  While we tend to focus on the negative effects of maternal depression on the child’s development and vulnerability to psychiatric illness, this study indicates that paternal depression may also play an important role in determining risk.  Also of significance is the finding that exposure to depression during childhood (in this study between the ages of 7 and 9) increases vulnerability later on during early adolescence.  

The good news is that depression in men is less common than in women.  The bad news is that men are less likely to seek and receive treatment for depression.  As clinicians consider family-based interventions designed to decrease vulnerability to depression in children and adolescents, we must consider the mental health of the entire family.  

Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD

 

Lewis G, Neary M, Polek E, Flouri E. The association between paternal and adolescent depressive symptoms: evidence from two population-based cohorts. Lancet Psychiatry. Published online November 15, 2017.

Read More:

Kids With Depressed Dads May Become Depressed Teens (MEDPAGE Today)

Teenage depression linked to father’s depression (Science Daily)

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