Postnatal Depression is a horrible thing, which can turn what should be a happy (if tiring!) time for a family into a living nightmare. Over the last few years, awareness about postnatal depression has risen a lot as attitudes about mental illness have changed and women who would once have been too ashamed or frightened to speak out have shared their stories.
We now know that rates of postnatal depression are a lot higher than ever previously believed, and likely to be higher even than modern statistics suggest (sadly, symptoms of postnatal depression are still often dismissed as being part and parcel of the stress and exhaustion a new baby brings in their wake). However, if postnatal depression remains under-reported in women, it’s chronically under-reported in men.
Yes, men. Men can suffer from postnatal depression too! Evidence shows that at least 10% of new fathers suffer from postnatal depression. And these are just the men we know about. Again, the true percentage is likely to be far, far higher than this. And it’s just as serious a condition for fathers as it is for mothers.
HOW DO MEN GET POSTNATAL DEPRESSION?
People are sometimes confused as to how and why fathers can get postnatal depression. After all, they say, surely postnatal depression in mothers is partly down to hormone fluctuations? Men do not experience the same hormonal rollercoaster that their female partners do during pregnancy, so how can men come down with postnatal depression?
Well, in fact, fathers do often experience hormonal changes following the birth of a new baby. Hormones such as testosterone, cortisol, vasopressin, and prolactin can all fluctuate considerably in response to the arrival on the scene of a new baby. Just as in women, this can result in quite drastic mood imbalances for the new father.
It’s also worth noting that, while there is a hormonal element to postnatal depression, hormones are far from the only factor involved. Other contributory factors include (but are not limited to):
- Past history of mental health problems
- A lack of support
- Birth trauma
- The physical and emotional upheavals caused by a new arrival
- Emotionally taxing events (bereavement or job stress, for example)
- Low self-esteem and/or general feelings of inadequacy
All of these factors can affect fathers just as much as they can affect mothers (even birth trauma – the stress of witnessing a loved partner go through a traumatic birth and the helplessness many men feel in such situations can have a severe impact). So, the short answer to the question ‘How do men get postnatal depression?’ is: exactly the same way that women do.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION IN MEN?
The symptoms of postnatal depression in fathers vary, and are often mistaken for the simple stress and fatigue brought on by a new baby. However, some signs to look out for include:
- Low energy
- Low motivation
- Irritability, frustration, angry outbursts and the like
- Persistent low mood
- Loss of interest in things which the sufferer would normally find fulfilling
- General feelings of apathy
- Difficulty bonding with the baby
- Conflict within the relationship
- Poor parenting (for example, refusing to do feeds, change nappies, play with the baby etc)
- Social withdrawal
- Problems with concentrating and/or thinking clearly
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite
All of these can occur as a result of sleepless nights and general baby pressures, but should never reach a point at which they are making the new parents’ life an absolute misery. If the low moods, exhaustion, and troubling emotions are starting to feel relentless, it may well be time to seek help from a professional.
ARE ALL NEW FATHERS AT RISK OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION?
Nobody can say for certain which fathers will and which will not suffer from postnatal depression. It can strike out of the blue. However, some factors are known to raise a man’s risk of postnatal depression:
- A partner also suffering from postnatal depression
- Previous history of mental illness
- Financial pressures
- Not being in a relationship with the child’s mother
- Being under the age of 25
- Substance abuse issues
- Problems getting the baby to sleep at night
- Feelings of being unsupported by partners and/or family and friends
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE AWARE OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION IN FATHERS?
Male mental health issues in general tend to be under-reported by both sufferers and society at large. Gendered ideas about what is (and is not) ‘manly’ lead to a lot of men suffering in silence, scared that speaking out will make them seem vulnerable and weak. New fathers are no different from anyone else in this regard. In fact, fatherhood can pile on a whole new set of gendered pressures. Now, the man is expected to be the powerful provider for and protector of his new family unit. Buying into this stereotype has the double effect of bringing greater stress and making it harder to seek help.
It’s important that we break this silence and raise awareness about postnatal depression in fathers, because this condition can have serious consequences if left untreated. Fathers with postnatal depression can struggle to form a positive relationship with their child, and the repercussions of this can last for the rest of their lives. Marital and partner relationships can also break down. Not to mention the inherent risks to the sufferer which depression brings with it.
CAN YOU TREAT POSTNATAL DEPRESSION IN DADS?
Yes! Absolutely. Postnatal depression in fathers is treated in the same way as it is in mothers. A doctor may prescribe antidepressant medications, which have proven extremely helpful for many. Talking therapies (perhaps undertaken as a family) can also have a hugely positive impact on the condition. We would encourage any new parent to seek help if they are struggling. Finding an accredited counsellor who can help you to work through what you're experiencing is a fantastic step to take. However, just reaching out to family and friends can have a much bigger impact than you might expect. Whatever you do – don’t suffer in silence.