Symptoms of depression can ‘run in families’
Postnatal depression is common, with one in 10 mothers experiencing clinical levels of depression during the first year after childbirth. This condition is rarely considered in relation to fathers, yet it can occur equally as commonly. Many would be surprised to know that as many as one in 10 fathers also experience clinical levels of depression in the postnatal period.
In families, depression often co-occurs between parents – when one parent is experiencing symptoms of depression, the other is at increased likelihood of also experiencing symptoms. Parental depression is reported to be one of the strongest risk factors for emotional difficulties in children. When it co-occurs in both parents, this risk is heightened. Nonetheless, little is known about the symptom-level mechanisms that explain co-occurring depression symptoms between parents and the association with emotional difficulties in children.
Our recent research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, investigated how mothers’ and fathers’ individual symptoms of depression help to explain how the condition can ‘run in families’. We used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, a large cohort of 14,000 families in England. Using a technique called network analysis – a method which identifies clusters of symptoms and analyses how they influence one another – we examined the co-occurrence of depression symptoms between parents early in their child’s development, and the association between these parental symptoms with child emotional difficulties as they approached adolescence.
We found that specific symptoms, including self-harm ideation and feeling guilty, mutually ‘activated’ depression symptoms between both parents when the child was an infant. We also found evidence of symptom ‘cascades’. When one parent reported high levels of a symptom, this symptom cascaded from one parent to the next, and onto the child. A key symptom which acted in this way was feeling guilty, but also anhedonia - the inability to feel pleasure.
These findings raise an important question: can fathers support their children when there is poor mental health in the family? Surprisingly, this is a seriously understudied question.
How can fathers support child wellbeing?
Although maternal postnatal depression symptoms are associated with adverse mental health outcomes in children, research has shown that child mental health outcomes are not solely determined by mothers – fathers also play a crucial role.
Symptoms of depression are sometimes associated with interpersonal difficulties (the ability to form relationships or communicate effectively). When mothers experience these difficulties it can be harder to form supportive mother-infant relationships, such as attachment and co-regulation (the process by which infants develop the ability to manage distressing sensations and emotions through connection with their caregiver), which are crucial for healthy development. It is well-documented that poor mother-infant relationships are associated with later child emotional difficulties (Guo et al., 2020; Lyons-Ruth et al., 1986; Verde-Cagiao et al., 2022). Fathers, of course, are also caregivers. This poses the question: can fathers compensate for the parental challenges a mother may face when experiencing symptoms of depression?