Fathers need to care for themselves as well as their kids – but often don’t.



If you had to choose, which would you rather have: a healthy father or a good father?

Studies suggest men often choose being a good father over being healthy.

Becoming a father is a major milestone in the life of a man, often shifting the way he thinks from being "me focused" to "we focused." But fatherhood can also shift how men perceive their health. Our researchhas found that fathers can view health not in terms of going to the doctor or eating vegetables but how they hold a job, provide for their family, protect and teach their children, and belong to a community or social network.

As founder and director of the Center for Research on Men's Health at Vanderbilt University and as a postdoctoral fellow from Meharry Medical College, we study why men live shorter lives than women, male attitudes about fatherhood, how to help men engage in healthier behavior – as well as what can be done to reduce men's risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.


Work, sex and health

Working with men to try to get them to be more physically active, eat healthier and maintain a healthy weight, we found that for many, their own physical and mental health is not high on their list of priorities. Men, we found, treat their bodies as tools to do a job. Health is not always important or something they pay much attention to until poor health gets in the way of their ability to go to work, have sex or do something else important to them. These roles and responsibilities are often the ways they define themselves as men and how others in their lives define their worth.



The Duke & Duchess Of Sussex Pose With Their Newborn Son Getty Images


While many aspects of gender roles have changed, we have found that many men still recognize they are often defined as good or successful if they have paid employment that is enough to take care of their children and other responsibilities. Fathers generally aspire to be able to look after their children, spouse, partner or other loved ones. That may mean less sleep, longer hours at work and less free time for hobbies and exercise.

Wanting to be a great dad can motivate men to push themselves to work longer and harder than they may have thought possible, but these choices can come at a cost, particularly if they also are not making time to take care of themselves.

We have seen evidence of despair, such as depressive symptoms, having thoughts of suicide, heavy drinking and marijuana use, among adults in their 20s and 30s. These behaviors tend to be higher in men during the time when they tend to become fathers for the first time. Consistent with this pattern, unintentional injuries and suicide are leading causes of death for men across racial and ethnic groups in their 20s and 30s. This is not the case for women.

By age 45, heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death for all groups of men. These chronic diseases can be prevented, to some degree, by not smoking, eating healthier foods and drinking less alcohol. Also, improving sleep, sitting less and moving more are important behaviors for good health.

Rather than trying to restart these behaviors after taking a break from them for a number of years, studies have found that it is important to help men keep healthy behaviors a part of their lives as they age.

As men age, they may not make deliberate choices to engage in less healthy behavior, but they may just do so because their lives and environments make unhealthy choices easier than healthy ones. Policymakers have to think about how to make it easier to make healthy choices in men's daily lives and to incorporate health into the time fathers spend with children and family or at work. Men don't have equal access to healthy foods or the same opportunities to go to the doctor, be physically active or earn a living wage, and yet, if asked, they all want to be healthy and have a positive influence on their children and families.

Where does making time for their own mental and physical health fit into dads' busy, stressful lives? We have found that it will be different for every father, but loved ones have to help them find a way. Based on our research, we believe that families, particularly women in men's lives, can play an important role in encouraging fathers to eat healthier and take better care of their health.

Wives in particular often provide emotional support, offer advice, facilitate men going to the doctor and promote healthy behavior. Wives, daughters and other women in fathers' lives are important sources of information about men's health, and they often play a key role in helping fathers and other men better understand and cope with stress.

As we celebrate fathers, it is important to recognize that fathers, generally speaking, may not place health at the top of their priorities. Many fathers gladly sacrifice to see their children happy, safe and successful. The problem is that if fathers think only about these goals, their own health can often suffer.

Derek M. Griffith is Professor of Medicine, Health & Society and Founder and Director of the Center for Research on Men's Health, Vanderbilt University.

Elizabeth C. Stewart is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Vanderbilt University.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

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It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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