Single dads are twice as likely to report poor physical and mental health as fathers with partners, according to a new study from a group of Toronto-area researchers.
In addition, solo fathers experience the same stress and strain as single mothers, which is likely related to low income and unemployment, the researchers say.
“We have long known that lone parenthood has negative effects on parents’ health, but few studies focus on the single father population,” said lead author Maria Chiu of the University of Toronto.
Single-parent households make up 16 per cent of families in Canada, 27 per cent of families in the U.S., and 25 per cent in the United Kingdom, Chiu and her colleagues write in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
“We know that, in general, men are more reluctant to seek health services, especially mental health, because of the stigmas attached,” she said. “We need to pay attention to the physical health and mental health of single dads in the same way we do with single moms.”
Chiu and colleagues looked at responses from 1,058 lone fathers in Canadian Community Health Surveys between 2001 and 2013. About 12 per cent of single fathers and single mothers reported poor or fair health on a five-point scale ranging from “poor” to “excellent.” Lone fathers were twice as likely as partnered fathers to rate both their physical and mental health as “poor/fair.”
The single-father household is the fastest growing family form in Canada, said Terrance Wade of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who wasn’t involved in the study.
In Canada, the number of lone fathers has increased at a faster rate than lone mothers, and lone fathers now make up a fifth of lone parents, Chiu’s team writes.
“Fathers are generally not perceived of societally as being the ones responsible for caregiving and raising children in a patriarchal society,” Wade said by email. “Lone mothers generally have more financial stress due to pervasive systemic gendered income inequality, while lone fathers generally have more caregiving stresses.”
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The majority of lone fathers included in the analysis were over age 45 and previously married. One in five earned less than $ 30,000 a year, and 15 per cent were unemployed. One in five had two or more chronic medical conditions, and one in 10 had a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder. Compared to single mothers, single fathers also had lower fruit and vegetable consumption and were more likely to be overweight and binge drinkers.
Future research should look at whether single parenthood is a cause or a consequence of poor health, the study authors note. In addition, researchers should compare lone and partnered fathers to absent fathers, said Andrew Howlett of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, who wasn’t involved with the study.
“Absent fathers are another vulnerable male population that deserves attention,” Howlett said. “It’s unclear whether men who transition from being absent fathers to lone fathers experience deterioration or improvement in their wellbeing.”
Public policy changes could help more single fathers access social assistance and child support, Chiu said.
“That’s not to say that services available to moms aren’t extended to single dads, but we do need to account for men being more reluctant to seek help,” Chiu said. “There may be opportunities for us to examine structural barriers that exist so everyone can better receive the services they need.”
The study was the work of co-authors affiliated with the University of Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton, as well as Women’s College Hospital, Cancer Care Ontario, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, all in Toronto.