Men who are expecting a child or whose partner has recently had a baby may experience depression just as women sometimes do, according to a new study.
In recent years, much attention has been focused on recognizing and treating maternal depression, and this treatment has had positive effects on the health of moms and babies, the research team said. Yet identifying fathers who are at risk for paternal depression also can be beneficial to these men and their families, the researchers noted.
The new study of fathers — one of the largest studies on both prenatal and postnatal paternal depression — included more than 3,500 men and was part of the ongoing "Growing Up in New Zealand" project. The results are published today (Feb. 15) in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. [7 Ways Depression Differs in Men and Women]
Previous studies have shown that as many as 20 percent of women experience prenatal or postnatal depression, the researchers wrote in their article. The condition may result from hormonal changes during and after pregnancy or external factors such as an unplanned pregnancy, domestic violence, or a lack of social or relationship support.
In the new study, the researchers found that 2.3 percent of the men in New Zealand had prenatal depression and 4.3 percent had postnatal depression. Although that rate is much lower than that of women, it can still have serious public health consequences, said Lisa Underwood, a research fellow at The University of Auckland in New Zealand, who led the study.
Paternal depression could strain the family's relationships in a way that could cause financial hardships for the family or lead to poor cognitive development for the child, "including emotional and behavioral problems," Underwood said.
"Given that around 4 million babies are born in the United States each year, these apparently small percentages translate to a large number of men, and consequently children, who are affected," Underwood told Live Science. "The antenatal [prenatal] and postnatal periods are critical times of fathers' influence on long-term child well-being [and] outcomes." [5 Ways Fatherhood Changes a Man's Brain]
The new study also found that depression in the dads was seen across the population, and was not significantly associated with men's age, general socioeconomic status, marital status or whether the pregnancy was unplanned.
However, prenatal depression in the dads was associated with experiencing stress or poor health during the pregnancy. Postnatal paternal depression was associated with stress, poor health, no longer being in a relationship with the mother, being unemployed, or having a history of depression.
Underwood said she hopes that doctors can learn to identify the factors that may lead to depression, recognize the symptoms of depression itself, and recommend treatment options for fathers as they are increasingly doing for mothers.
"Fathers, as well as mothers, have a significant impact on children's development," Underwood said. "Both parents' mental well-being affects their relationship, their parenting and their involvement with their children. Therefore, it is vital that we recognize and treat symptoms of mental ill health among fathers — and mothers — early."
Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of "Food at Work" and "Bad Medicine." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.