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Teen Depression Linked to Dad’s, Not Just Mom’s, Mental Health

Kids with a depressed father are more likely to be at-risk for teen depression, finds a new study led by researchers from University College London.

While the link between mothers’ depression and depression in their children is well-established, the new Lancet Psychiatry study is the first to find an association between depression in fathers and teen mental health, independent of whether the mother suffered from depression, in a large sample in the general population. The effects of fathers’ and mothers’ depression on their children’s symptoms were similar in magnitude.

“There’s a common misconception that mothers are more responsible for their children’s mental health, while fathers are less influential. We found that the link between parent and teen depression is not related to gender,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Gemma Lewis, of UCL’s psychiatry faculty. “Family-focused interventions to prevent depression often focus more on mothers, but our findings suggest we should be just as focused on fathers.”

The researchers drew on two large longitudinal studies of children across Ireland, England and Wales, using data from 6070 and 7768 families, respectively. Parental depressive symptoms were assessed using a questionnaire when the children were 9 and 7 years old in the two cohorts, and then symptoms of teenage depression were assessed when the children were 13 and 14 years old. The samples included people who experienced symptoms of depression but had not sought treatment.

After adjusting for confounding factors such as maternal depression, family income and parental alcohol use, the researchers found that for every 3-point (one standard deviation) increase in fathers’ scores on a commonly-used clinical measure of depressive symptoms, there was an associated 0.2-point increase in the adolescent’s score. The findings were replicated in both independent study samples.

Incidence of depression increases markedly at the start of the teenage years, so the researchers say that understanding the risk factors for teen depression can be key to preventing mental health struggles later in life. While previous studies have shown links between a depressed father and poor behavioral and emotional outcomes in children, no large-scale study of the general population (as opposed to sampling only teens and parents who have been clinically diagnosed with depression) has looked at the link with teen depression, taking into account maternal depression as well.

“Men are less likely to seek treatment for depression. If you’re a father who hasn’t sought treatment for your depression, it could have an impact on your child. We hope that our findings could encourage men who experience depressive symptoms to speak to their doctor about it,” Dr. Lewis said.

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