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When Dads Have Depression, Kids May Be at Risk, Too

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Nov. 7 (HealthDay News) -- Children of fathers who seem depressed are more likely to show signs of behavioral and emotional problems, although the nature of the link isn't clear, researchers report.

The study also suggests that kids whose parents both seem depressed are at particularly high risk.

"This opens the door to a vast array of answerable but currently unanswered questions about the health and development of children growing up in households with depressed fathers," said study author Dr. Michael Weitzman, a professor of pediatrics and environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine.

Plenty of studies have examined how mental problems in mothers affect kids, especially in terms of postpartum depression, Weitzman said. Scientists have even found signs that fathers can get depressed after a child's birth. But there's been little research into how the mental state of fathers may affect kids, he said.

That reflects a larger gap, he said. "Fathers get left out of all sorts of policy and clinical deliberations about the well-being of children."

In the new study, researchers examined the results of surveys of nearly 22,000 U.S. children aged 5 to 17 and of their mothers and fathers. The surveys were completed from 2004 to 2008.

The study authors looked for signs of depression based on the answers, although none of the parents or children was diagnosed as part of the survey.

The researchers found that 7.5 percent of the kids showed signs of behavioral or emotional problems. Older kids (aged 12 to 17), males, whites and those who lived with smokers had higher levels of apparent depression.

Twenty percent of those with mothers who appeared depressed showed signs of depression themselves; the percentage was 16 percent for those whose fathers appeared depressed. The number jumped to 25 percent if both parents appeared depressed, Weitzman said.

The numbers don't indicate why symptoms of depression in parents and kids might be linked. It could have something to do with depression, Weitzman said, or depressed parents might make kids depressed. Another possibility is that depressed kids make parents depressed.

If the link is directly from parents to kids, some possible reasons could include the inability of depressed parents "to respond to a child's requests and needs in a consistently reliable and empathic manner," said Dr. Rahil Briggs, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Depressed parents may also struggle to help their children regulate their own emotions, which may lead to poor social emotional development."

Dr. Christopher Bellonci, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, said the findings are "consciousness-raising" because they point to how depressed males don't necessarily suffer in isolation. "They remind us that when you're working with depressed adult males you have to remember to ask, 'Are they a parent? Who's watching out for the kids?'"

The study appears online and in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics.

More information

For more about depression, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Michael Weitzman, M.D., professor, pediatrics and environmental medicine, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; Rahil D. Briggs, Psy.D., assistant professor, pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and director, Healthy Steps at Montefiore, New York City; Christopher Bellonci, M.D., psychiatrist and assistant professor, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston; December 2011 Pediatrics

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