Father carers' mental health

Caring for a child with learning disabilities can be a very rewarding but demanding experience. Research in this area has primarily focused on mothers, with relatively little attention given to the mental health of fathers. This project aimed to review the existing research in this field and determine if the mental health of fathers of a son or daughter with learning disabilities is different from mothers or other fathers in the general population.

What we did
A systematic review of the existing literature was carried out using a range of databases on 1st July 2018. The search was conducted using key words relating to learning disabilities, mental health and fathers. Articles were selected based on their relevance to the research. 

What we found
After completing the search 5,544 papers were initially identified. 20 of these studies met the inclusion criteria for this review. The majority of papers which compared mothers and fathers of a son/daughter with learning disabilities reported significantly lower levels of depression, anxiety, stress and general mental ill-health in fathers than mothers. Few papers compared father carers with fathers in the general population. Those which did, reported poorer mental health scores for fathers of a son/daughter with learning disabilities.

The review found some support in included papers for the association between father carers’ mental health and well-being with marital support, financial resources, and challenging behaviour of their son/daughter.

What this means
Time spent outside the family home in a different role and number of hours spent caring for their son/daughter may contribute to gender differences in parental mental health. Included studies which reported employment status, and/or time spent caring, found that fathers were more likely to be employed full-time and spend less time on caregiving activities for their child than mothers. Previous research suggests that participation in paid work can serve as a protection against social isolation and life dissatisfaction, and as fathers are more likely to work, this may contribute to their well-being.

While mothers experience poorer well-being than fathers, this review demonstrated that fathers are also affected by having a son/daughter with learning disabilities. The review identified a number of factors associated with poor father well-being which have previously been linked with poor mother well-being. This suggests that while mothers experience poorer mental health and well-being than fathers, both parents benefit from supportive marital relationships, financial resources, and lower levels of challenging behaviour. Further research is required to better understand differences in the way that mother and father well-being is impacted by having a son/daughter with learning disabilities.  

For further information, please contact Kirsty Dunn

Page updated September 2020