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Caring for dads and their mental health

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Father and child on the lounge


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.”

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.
Alan Ralph

Dads and self-care

Dr Ralph says there are numerous benefits when fathers are involved in parenting.

Not only do they share the responsibility of parenting, so that raising children doesn’t fall on one set of shoulders, but they also bring a diversity of experience and expertise which the child benefits from. Which is why it’s so important for fathers to prioritise their mental health.

Dr Ralph provides the following seven strategies:

1. Seek Support

“A lot of people feel they are the only ones feeling the way they do, but as soon as they reach out for support, they realise others are facing the same challenges. It normalises and destigmatises their situation.”

2. Look after yourself

“This is one of Triple P’s key principles. Build things into your life that are important for you and balance them with being there for your child. If you aren’t sufficiently addressing your own needs, you reduce your capacity to be available to your children.”

3. Talk about it

“Share your feelings with your family before problems occur.”

4. Forget the guilt. It’s about quality time.

“Fathers may feel guilty about not spending large blocks of time with their children, but it’s not about how many hours, it’s about small interactions. Be available to listen, to share and to talk.”

5. Your partner is there to support you.

“Seek support from your partner and communicate what you need but be aware of not putting them into a carer role for you.”

6. Daily routines

“Sometimes the decision about what to do with your child can be a challenge. Routines in the day can reduce the mental energy on decision making. While it doesn’t have to be rigid, it can be used as a supportive tool, and fathers can go straight into enjoying an activity with a child that they are expecting.”

7. Skills, knowledge and expertise

“Some fathers feel they don’t have the parenting skills or knowledge, especially as the child ages. Having access to reliable, evidenced-based, easy-to-access programs like Triple P Online can give parents confidence in their abilities.”