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Depression risk in young first time fathers

by on 2014/05/01

A study that reported that young dads are at high risk of depression has received considerable media attention.  The authors reported that depression can hit young fathers hard with symptoms increasing dramatically during some of the most important years of their children’s lives. So what did the study do and how did the media handle reporting the findings?

What did the study do?

The study was conducted by Craig Garfield and colleagues at Northwestern University and was published in the academic journal Pediatrics. The authors used data collected from 10,623 young men enrolled in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. It includes a nationally representative sample of adolescents in the U.S. and followed them in several waves over nearly 20 years into young adulthood. All participants’ symptoms of depression were scored at each wave through a survey using a subset of the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale. During the most recent wave of the study, the young men were aged 24 to 32, and 33% had become fathers.

Fathers who resided with their children showed dramatic increases in depression symptom scores after the birth of a child and into early fatherhood. Young fathers who did not live with their children did not experience this dramatic increase although this sample was smaller in number.

The study findings received considerable media coverage worldwide. In general the media reported the study accurately keeping close to the wording of the press release. Several media outlets used a very odd sensationalist headline ‘Forget moms – young dads face depression too’. The authors did not of course denounce the issue of maternal post-natal depression which this headline implies.

How did the media handle coverage of this study?

Some media outlets reported the ‘difference’  in non-resident fathers without mentioning it wasn’t statistically significant such as the Daily Mail. Some journalists reported findings not actually examined by the study. The Daily Mail for example ran with a subheading of ‘they (depressed fathers) also read and interact less with their children and are more stressed’. The study did not examine these issues. The headline was referring to other research but most readers won’t have picked up on that. USA Today reported on the study findings and noted both that the non-resident father finding was not statistically significant and that the findings relating to reading and interacting were based on the lead author, Craig Garfield’s, previous research. Accurate reporting of this study is particularly important as it identifies new findings relating to mental health. Importantly, the results are based on a large sample followed longitudinally which adds weight to the basis of the findings.

“A Longitudinal Study of Paternal Mental Health During Transition to Fatherhood as Young Adults”, Craig F. Garfield, Greg Duncan, Joshua Rutsohn, Thomas W. McDade, Emma K. Adam, Rebekah Levine Coley and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Pediatrics, peds.2013-3262; published ahead of print April 14, 2014, doi:10.1542/peds.2013-3262

“The effects of early paternal depression on children’s development,” R. J. Fletcher, E. Feeman, C. Garfield, and G. Vimpani,  Med J Aust, vol. 195, no. 11, pp. 685–689, Dec. 2011. doi:10.5694/mja11.10192

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