A little while ago, I did a post about a longitudinal study called Children of the 90s that showed a relationship between post-partum depression in Dads and possibly related psychological issues in their children. The head researcher on this study, Paul Ramchandani has been busy, but he’s now written me back to answer some of my concerns in the previous post. I report his answers here unedited…
How positive are you that there is a clear link between post-natal depression in fathers and their children’s behavioral problems?
What we have shown in this study is an association between depression in fathers, and later behavioural problems in their children. We have controlled carefully for a number of potentially important confounding factors, so I think we can be reasonably confident that the association or link is real. There is a lot of accumulating research evidence showing that involvement of fathers in their children’s lives has substantial benefits for their children’s development in most cases. So it does make some sense that if a father’s ability to be involved in their children’s care is affected through serious illness (whether that be depression, severe asthma, heart disease etc) then there may be some impact upon their families and their children. However I think it is important to stress that we have shown a link at the population level, so it is not the case that depression in a father necessarily affects their children. Most of the children whose fathers were depressed in our study had no behavioural problems.
Do you think that this link is genetic or comes from poor nurturing?
Please see answer to the next question.
Is it possible that babies with colic and volatile tempers grow up to have behavioral problems, and that the depression in fathers stem from having a fussy baby? That perhaps babies prone to behavior problems are the cause of the depression and not the other way around?
I have taken these two questions together because I think that they both address the issue of whether this link is really causal and, if it is, what might the mechanisms be by which depression in fathers may affect their children. It is possible that having a difficult to look after baby might lead to greater risk of depression in fathers. We tried to minimise this by measuring depression early on (8 weeks after the birth of the child), and measuring the children’s behaviour problems much later (at age 6 and 7 years). If we accept that the main effect is likely to be from fathers to children (rather than the other way around) then the question of how this might happen is really important. Our particular study hasn’t yet been able to disentangle this, although we are currently working on these questions. Other research on depression suggests that the genetic effects may account for about 50% of the risk, but in my view there is still a lot of work to be done here too before we have anything like definitive answers.
Is it possible that the depression in fathers stem from a poor marriage, and that having a weak parental unit creates the behavior problems?
It is possible, and there is other research showing a strong link between depression (in mothers or fathers) and marital difficulties. Marital difficulties themselves are linked to an increased risk of behavioural problems in children.
Are the results only isolated to postnatal depression or do they also include those men who are constantly depressed?
We focussed particularly on depression in the postnatal period. However, research in mothers suggests that chronic depression may have greater effects on familiies and children than a single episode of depression. I’m not aware of any similar research on fathers, although I may have missed it.
Did you find a similar link between postnatal depression in mothers and their children?
Yes, the relationships are somewhat stronger for maternal depression, and there is much larger body of research investigating depression in mothers.
How did you decide whether the father was depressed? Was it voluntary information or did they have to be diagnosed as depressed?
The assessment was done by fathers completing a questionnaire, so this is not quite the same as being diagnosed as depressed, although it is quite a good estimate of depression.