Fathers and Mental Health

Tuesday May 3, 2011

Research on the relationship between parenting, mental illness and child development has tended to focus on how children can be negatively affected by their parents' mental health problems, with most research focusing on mothers. Brenda LeFrançois, Associate Professor of Social Work at Memorial University, has taken a more father and child-centred approach to these issues in two new scholarly articles, which originated out of a literature review funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2009.

LeFrançois, whose academic background includes work in the area of children's rights, looked at both quantitative and qualitative studies in her recent articles published in the journals Critical Social Work, and The International Journal of Social Psychiatry. One of the chief themes emerging from this literature, according to LeFrançois, is that in contrast to quantitative research, which has primarily identified negative outcomes for children of fathers diagnosed with mental distress, the qualitative literature, which examines the perspectives of children and parents, shows mixed outcomes, some of which may be positive.

LeFrançois reports that some research shows that while children do indeed have distressing experiences related to their fathers' (or mothers') mental distress, both children and fathers in these families tend to see their relationships in positive terms and sometimes report having stronger relationships than in other families. She also notes that children of parents with mental distress sometimes play a caregiving, or "young carer," role with respect to their affected parent. Although this has generally been portrayed negatively as "parentification" of the child, newer research suggests that complete role transference does not take place. And in spite of the significant role that young carers sometimes play with respect to family management of parents' mental distress, research shows that young carers tend to be excluded from discussions and decision-making about parents' care, which is linked to negative outcomes for children.

 Other findings:

• Fathers who have been diagnosed with mental health problems are at a higher risk of experiencing unemployment, poverty, social isolation, homelessness and general economic disadvantage, all of which are linked to poorer outcomes for children.

• One of the damaging issues faced by both distressed fathers and their children (and directly linked to the economic and social barriers described above) is discrimination, exclusions, prejudice and harassment.

LeFrançois' article, which should be of interest to professionals working with families affected by mental distress, also includes proposals for further research along with policy changes which would support family well-being and father-child relationships in families where fathers are diagnosed with mental distress.

Source: LeFrançois, B.A. (2011). Supporting positive relationships in families where fathers suffer with mental distress. Critical Social Work, 12, 1. The full text of this article is available online. 

Related work by Dr. LeFrançois

LeFrançois, B.A. (2010). Distressed fathers and their children: A review of the literature. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, published November 24, 2010 as doi: 10.1177/0020764010387478.

LeFrançois, Brenda, A. (2009) Mental Health and the Fathering Role: An Integrative Review of the Literature. Report prepared for the Public Health Agency of Canada.