05/28/2010 03:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Supporting Moonshine Fathers

The "ugly secret of global poverty" is basically that men prioritize alcohol and tobacco over their children, per Nicholas Kristof's Sunday New York Times column. He addresses the problematic way in which many in the developing world choose to spend their money, though this is also true of some of the poor in the United States.

The call to action, that we should give women more control over finances and assets, is one that humanitarian workers have known for years. Aid and development workers learned quickly in the field that distributing food and rations to women in refugee camps for example, ensure that the goods benefit children.

However, a parallel and integrated solution would include focusing on mental health instead of isolating or banishing men, who also play an integral role in families. Men have various of reasons for drinking. Part of it could be cultural, and part of it simply selfish and hedonistic.

But poverty and mental health are interwoven. Some men drink to self-medicate their depression or anxiety that are intolerable. Others drink to cope with stressful situations like unemployment, idleness, lack of upward mobility, failure at one's societal role, and failure to protect the family.

Many developing countries are youthful, with a majority of the population under 25 years old. For these young people, there's not much potential for growth. Life's opportunities are slim when illiteracy rates are high, educational and job options sparse, and governance hopeless. Move this to the rural areas where the only option for upward mobility is as a village elder or traditional healer, or to leave the family by migrating to an urban area where one can at least hope for an opportunity to provide. Many governments control land distribution, so young men have no method of livelihood to raise their families. Drug and alcohol addiction are high in many post-conflict countries, in part due to the above societal limitations.

This is not to say that we should make allowances and excuses for men to prioritize their selfish lifestyles over caring for families. I'm merely raising the point that by only focusing on women, we neglect a major part of family and culture.

Instead of casting non-productive fathers aside, we should help in rehabilitation to build a community of supportive fathers, while also empowering women with more entitlements. This starts with the acknowledgment that poverty, governance, education, job mobility, and security all interweave with mental health.

Changing a culture is difficult and many may think this approach idealistic and tiresome, but one role as a mental health clinician is to see potential in people and foster resiliency and strength. A family unit of two supportive parents can optimize a child's life. We could start with public awareness and education, as well as incentives to ensure that men spend on behalf of the family. Showing a woman's value to the economic and social benefit of a community could help her empowerment. On a broader level, providing more vocational skills and education that specifically funnel into jobs that have an option for mobility will help build structure and meaning into a man's life. Addressing the feelings of powerlessness that lead to depression and anxiety, and helping to provide a more effective way of coping can decrease tension all around.

Fathers have a role in families. By supporting their mental health and psychosocial well-being, we also support children and families.