Despite the focus on men’s mental health and supporting new fathers as they adjust to parenthood, it seems fathers’ mental health in Australia may still be suffering.
“It’s hard to definitively say whether the rise is because we are more aware of men’s mental health, in particular father’s mental health, and therefore more men are coming forward, or if it is, in fact getting worse,” says Alan Ralph, Triple P International Head of Training and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at The University of Queensland.
“However, speaking to general practitioners, seeing psychologists with long wait lists for new patients and the phone calls coming into Lifeline, they all indicate an increased need for support across the board, but particularly from men.”
Dr Ralph says that fathers are experiencing increased levels of anxiety and stress due to the compounding nature of the pandemic, stay-at-home lock downs, balancing work and family, natural disasters and the financial strain from the increase in cost of living.
“While the social and cultural changes to increase opportunities for fathers to be more involved with raising their children is positive, fathers may also be struggling to take on these new roles that are now expected of them,” he adds.
“All of these issues have the capacity to create serious problems.”
When it comes to seeking support, Dr Ralph says that there is still an expectation that men shouldn’t complain and rather ‘get on with it’.
He says that while those messages aren’t as prevalent as they used to be, and there are attempts to remove stigma around men’s mental health, the urge to always be strong is still very much there.
Another issue weighing heavily on parents, particularly fathers, is a gap that Dr Ralph notes we haven’t addressed very well.
“There is an overwhelming number of differing opinions and information on how to parent, and parents, particularly fathers, may feel out-of-their-depth when it comes to growing and developing with their child after the first year,” he says.
“Giving parents the skills and knowledge to feel confident in themselves to parent using evidence-based techniques can really support the family unit.”
The flow-on effects
In a 2015 report on Fatherhood and Mental Illness, the Australian Institute for Family Studies (AIFS) found, “the children of men with a mental illness are more likely than other children to experience internalising (i.e. emotional) and externalising (i.e. behavioural) problems, as well as to be diagnosed with a mental illness themselves”.
“A father with unaddressed mental health issues is less available and less responsive to their child’s needs and their capacity to respond appropriately to those needs is diminished,” says Dr Ralph.
Researchers analysing data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found that fathers who experience snowballing distress reported being less consistent in setting and enforcing expectations and limits for their child’s behaviour.
They also showed less warmth and greater hostility towards their children when they were eight or nine years old.
“There is also the aspect of poor role modelling behaviour,” adds Dr Ralph.
“Children copy a lot of their parent’s behaviour; it’s how they learn how to behave.
“So, they may be learning unfavourable behaviours by simply witnessing how their father responds to their own mental health and how their father acts out in coping with their mental health issues.”
The AIFS found fathers with a mental illness are more likely than other fathers to show low levels or parental engagement, warmth and appropriate monitoring.
“Triple P encourages parents to learn how to respond to children as they grow, especially as children become much more interactive with their parents,” Dr Ralph explains.
“Unaddressed mental health issues have the ability to dramatically impact how to learn and respond to the developing child.”
There are also indirect effects.
“A father’s poor mental health can create additional demands on their partner which means their partner’s ability to respond to the children’s needs can be diminished,” he says.
“There are also the demands placed on access to resources, like time spent at medical appointments or costs associated with access to care, that can all put further stress on the household.”