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Running In The Family

The old saying “like father, like son” may ring more true than many of us have been led to believe.  Last month, a former student of mine came by my office to visit me. We talked about his new job, the economy, the weather, etc. He said he had been suffering from a mild degree of stress and depression. He added that his father and grandfather suffered from a combination of stress and depression when they were about his age.

Earlier this summer, the American Psychological Association at its annual convention sponsored several panels that highlighted several topics as they related to issues facing our world. Among the more interesting and intriguing panels was a session that examined the issue of stress and the possible hereditary effects that it may often have on children, especially men, whose fathers were likely to suffer from the condition. The study had many researchers talking.                     

In a USA Today article, reporter Sharon Jayson described an experiment where more than 900 men and women between the ages of 25-74 were interviewed by phone on a consistent basis for more than a week. During this time they were asked identical questions as they related to psychological and emotional issues — anger, arguments, disruptive home life, etc. The study resulted in several findings; however, what was most intriguing according to Dr. Melanie Horn-Mallers, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University at Fullerton, was that the encounters that fathers and sons had with one another were more likely to culminate in situations or dilemmas that would have long-term, and in some cases, permanent results.

Among the most profound findings that Horn-Mallers, Kira Birditt a research assistant at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and other co-authors of the study found were that adult children with problems had a negative impact on a parent’s mental health, regardless of how other siblings were doing. Having a child suffer, affected the physical and emotional well-being of the parent. Again, the findings were more pronounced in father/son relationships.

While some people may look at such studies as unscientific, atypical or coincidental, it is likely true that family genes play a pivotal role in our mental, physical and psychological well being. For example, we all know that certain diseases run in certain families. Therefore, it would only be feasible not to discount the strong likelihood that stress, which we could argue is a distant cousin of depression, can be transient or hereditary in certain families.

The fact is that while both men and women face a multitude of pressures in our ever society, men have historically been expected to be the breadwinner and the disciplinarian. The male was the parent who was responsible for keeping the livelihood of the family in tact. Yet, in spite of such expectations, it is also men who have increasingly seen their economic, social and political capital eclipsed and is some cases, eradicated, because of outsourcing of jobs, unemployment, as well as other internal and external factors. The same is true of boys who, even in our supposedly postmodern age, are expected to retain as many of their masculine qualities as possible. It is OK for men to be sensitive and intellectually aware but it is also expected they remain be brawny and true to their male roots as possible.

Given such a culmination of complex and contradictory factors, all men are likely facing ever increasing amounts of stress and depression. Men are living in an emotional, demanding and transforming world. As a society, we must become more sensitive to this and assist men facing such predicaments. Our future livelihood may depend on it.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008).

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