BYU research explores impact of depressed dads

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Professor Kevin Shafer’s research analyzes how mental illness affects fathers and their families. (Illustration by Rachel Andrews)

Recently published research by BYU social work professor Kevin Shafer sheds light on mental illness in fathers, the impact depressed fathers have on their children and the importance of seeking help.

“There’s never been a lot of work on the impact that fathers have on their kids,” Shafer said. “There are pretty substantial changes that are happening in family life because dads are taking a bigger role in the raising of their children.”

Shafer said the outcomes of depressed parenting on kids can manifest in either internalized or externalized behaviors.

“Internalized behavior includes feelings of worthlessness or anxiety, or low self esteem; externalized problems are things like being a bully or stealing things — sort of what we call ‘acting out,'” Shafer said.

Shafer said research shows children who are raised by a depressed mother often experience negative effects such as lower performance in school, poor social skills and decreased physical health.

Shafer said while researchers know the effects of depressed mothers on children, the lack of research on the effects of depressed fathers on children led him and fellow BYU researchers Brandon Fielding and Doug Wendt to investigate further.

“We wanted to find out, does the same process exist for dads?” Shafer said.

Shafer’s research team compared moms’ depression and dads’ depression. Shafer said dads’ depression have stronger, more negative effects on adolescents than a mom’s depression, though this may not be true for children of other ages.

Ernie Taylor is a licensed clinical social worker who’s been practicing in Utah Valley for over 30 years. Taylor — who specializes in depression, anxiety and mental illness — said fathers tend to express their depression through anger and irritability, which causes them to fail to realize the extent of the impact these negative feelings have on their loved ones.

“I have multiple clients around the age of 10 to 13 who are dealing with their own depression because they feel like their dads are angry all the time,” Taylor said. “Their fathers are probably depressed, but they struggle to admit that they have a problem or feel like it isn’t serious enough to confront.”

Taylor said a father’s depression can be hard to identify because it manifests itself through irritability and anger — the family members think they have an angry dad, and they don’t understand why.

Taylor said a number of factors cause depression in fathers, including the pressures of being a provider and filling the role of husband, father, coach, tutor and other roles fathers fill.

“A lot of times they’re feeling more inadequate than they would ever reveal to anyone,” Taylor said.

Shafer’s research reveals while mothers are primarily affected by postpartum depression, it is also a serious issue with fathers.

Men are at an increased risk of depression during pregnancy and well into the first year of a baby’s life, according to Shafer.

“Think of the things that suddenly become a reality: financial pressures become bigger; there’s pressure of making a decision about a career; there’s pressure of ‘now decisions aren’t just being made for my wife and I, but there’s this other person who’s completely dependent upon us,'” Shafer said. “I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves around being great parents.”

Brandon Fielding, a fellow BYU researcher, said gender roles are changing and need to change further.

“Society has taught men that we are the strong ones and that if we seek help, we’re weak and can’t fulfill our roles,” Fielding said. “With more women in the workplace and men taking a more primary role in raising children, it’s important that we adapt and start taking men’s help-seeking behaviors seriously.”

Shafer said he hopes the paper’s publication helps men realize their mental health issues affect not only themselves, but also their families in many important ways.

“If you’re not going to do it for yourself — which a lot of men aren’t willing to do because we sort of have ridiculous ideas about what a man is — look at the effects it has on other people,” Shafer said. “Get in a healthy place for the other people in your life.”

Put the following in a sidebar:

On-campus resources are available for individuals who deal with depression or other mental illnesses at BYU:

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • Addresses the mental health needs of students
  • Raises mental health awareness by providing peer support, education and advocacy on the BYU campus
  • Offers a weekly support group open to anyone during the fall and winter semesters where individuals can find support for a variety of concerns

BYU Counseling and Career Center:

  • Provides free personal counseling for full-time BYU students
  • Offers training to help manage anxiety, depression, eating issues, addictions and other stress management concerns at the Stress and Biofeedback lab
  • Supplies resources for substance abuse prevention and treatment
  • Students can take online mental health screenings