The New York Times published an interesting article on the high risk of depression among new parents.  While we are now more aware of depression in mothers after delivery and making greater efforts to screen for postpartum depression, the article points out that both parents are at risk for depression and that the risk extends well beyond the immediate postpartum period.

Several recent studies have highlighted the fact that having a child increases the risk for anxiety and depression in both parents.   Pooling the results of multiple studies, researchers have estimated the prevalence of PPD in new fathers is about 10.4%, a rate which is a bit lower than what has been observed in studies of new mothers.

In a British study of parents with children (to which the Times article refers), researchers reviewed the medical records of nearly 87,000 families.  The findings from this study indicated that:

  • The highest risk for depression occurred during the first year after a child’s birth, with 13% of the women experiencing an episode of depression during the first year postpartum.
  • After the first year, the risk of depression diminished by about 50%.
  • During the first 12 years of the child’s life, 39% of mothers and 21% of fathers experienced an episode of depression.
  • Most vulnerable to depression were parents who were younger or had lower incomes and those with a previous history of depression.

Although the study did not include a control group of married men and women without children, the authors, using other data on the prevalence of depression in primary care populations, estimate that the risk of depression among parents of children under the age of 12 is about twice that observed in the general population.

While the hormonal and physiologic changes that take place during pregnancy and the postpartum period may increase the risk of depression after the birth of a child, the authors of the study speculate that other factors are at play.  Having a child and parenting that child can increase stress within in the family, and this stress may make both mother and father more vulnerable to depression.

Recently there has been, with the passage of the Mother’s Act, an emphasis on screening for postpartum depression in new mothers.  However, this study  and others suggest that a mother’s – and father’s—risk for depression extends well beyond the first year of a child’s life.  Because parental depression can have a deleterious effect on the cognitive and emotional development of a child, health care providers who work with children and families must be aware of signs of depression or anxiety in both parents.

Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD

Dave S, Petersen I, Sherr L, Nazareth I.  Incidence of Maternal and Paternal Depression in Primary Care: A Cohort Study Using a Primary Care Database. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2010.