While mothers head the majority of single-parent households, the percentage of father-headed, lone-parent households has increased in recent years. However, current mental health research on single parents focuses almost exclusively on single mothers. In this analysis, we disaggregate the unique and combined effects of gender and family structure on the mental health of fathers and mothers.
We used the Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health and Well-Being, a nationally representative population health survey. In this survey, 769 and 1964 lone fathers and mothers, respectively, and 5340 and 5505 married or cohabitating fathers and mothers, respectively, with at least 1 child aged 25 years or younger living at home, were identified. We also used the World Mental Health Composite International Diagnostic Interview (WMH-CIDI) to provide diagnoses for various anxiety and mood disorders and a revised version of the WHM-CIDI to identify substance use disorders (SUDs).
Lone fathers and lone mothers have higher rates of mood disorders and SUDs than their married counterparts. Comparing lone parents, mothers had higher rates of anxiety disorders (10.7%, compared with 4.9%) and mood or anxiety disorders (19.9%, compared with 11.1%) than fathers but were not significantly different across total disorders when SUD was included. Social support significantly moderated effects for single-parent status and gender. Social support appears to be more of a protective factor for lone fathers than among lone mothers.
Similar to lone mothers, lone fathers are at greater risk of psychiatric disorders than their married counterparts, indicating that this disadvantaged family structure has negative consequences for all parents.