Research network to investigate the mental health of fathers

As a child psychiatrist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, Dr. Andrew Howlett has seen first-hand the powerful role fathers play in a child’s development – and the issues that can arise when dads don’t manage their own mental health concerns.

“I wondered about how much we do to engage fathers in child care,” Howlett says. “And what’s the impact on the outcomes for children when their fathers are more involved?”

With that motivation in mind, Howlett set out to research how men – and fathers in particular – handle their own mental health needs, and how this can impact their children. His research planning initiative has received full approval and funding, worth nearly $24,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Howlett says this planning grant will support the development of a Fathers Mental Health Research Network (FMHRN) and enable the University of Toronto to host a meeting of international researchers in the area of fathers’ mental health later this year.

Dr. Jerry Maniate, Chief of Medical Education & Scholarship at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, says this is an exciting opportunity for St. Joe’s to be part of some important research. “St. Joe’s is a community academic hospital, and this is a great chance for us to contribute to a project that’s of national and international interest and impact,” he explains.

Howlett’s research, alongside his co-investigator, Dr. Robert Maunder, Head of Research in the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital, will be building upon some already-established findings.

Previous research has shown men are more likely to develop certain mental health and substance use conditions, Howlett notes. “There’s no question that (men) are less aware of their mental health and are less likely to use mental health services,” he adds. This, in turn, increases men’s risk of impairment or death.

These issues carry over into fatherhood and can have a negative impact on children, as Howlett has observed working with young patients and their families at St. Joe’s.

“Dr. Howlett’s research speaks to the comprehensive mental health and addictions care and treatment we provide for both children and adults here at St. Joe’s,” notes Paula Podolski, Administrative Program Director for the Mental Health and Addictions Program. “Our goal is to meet the needs of our community, and the mental health of fathers is clearly an area that requires attention.”

Helping patients is the ultimate goal of Howlett’s research, and he says he hopes to begin developing clinical programs and public awareness initiatives based on men’s mental health once the research network is in place.

“There’s a growing concern over the fact that health care organizations need to better engage men – particularly fathers – and offer a service that would be exclusive to them, and attractive to the most reluctant dad,” Howlett says.

Gender-specific treatment has moved forward in recent years for women, he notes, but services geared towards men are lagging behind.

“I think being able to involve fathers and help them better understand their difficulties – and find ways to manage them – will better enable them to improve their role as dads,” Howlett says.

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