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The Unseen Issue of Fathers’ Mental Health

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

Fathers’ mental health is a bit of a taboo topic but it’s becoming increasingly necessary to talk about the inconvenient fact that men are at at risk of paternal postnatal depression. Surprisingly, as many as 1 in 10 fathers suffer from paternal postnatal depression after their child is born.


Finances, a lack of support from a partner, a crying baby can all increase the risk of postnatal depression in dads


What leads to postnatal depression in fathers?


A range of issues, such as financial pressures and unemployment, having a partner who

depressed or unsupportive, relationship breakdown with the baby’s mother, a baby that struggles to sleep or cries a lot, and unplanned pregnancies, can contribute to postnatal depression in fathers. Young dads, men under the age of 25 are also at greater risk. The perinatal period covers pregnancy up to the first year of the child. At present, much of the services available are directed at mothers’ mental and physical health, and much less that of fathers.


Life changes irreversibly after childbirth


Whilst a potentially magical and undeniably life-changing time, the period after birth can be an incredibly tricky one for most couples.


Couples that had a particular way of life before the baby (date nights and quality couple time) and had a certain quality of relationship become thrown into parenthood and managing a newborn on top of their existing responsibilities. Overnight, a couple become new parents with the new duties of mastering feeding, bathing and keeping baby rested and healthy, as well as learning its emerging personality and patterns and figuring how how they want to raise this new human being.


Before birth, a lot of my parent friends have said to me:


“humans have been having children for many years, so why does it seem like so many baby books and expensive baby equipment are needed?"


After birth, reality sets in that human offspring are surprisingly complex to care for and do not come with a user manual.


For some, there is a steep learning curve where many parents quickly read up to understand how to look after their child. This may involve reading to understand if they believe in controlled crying versus attachment parenting, baby-led feeding or scheduled feeds. All such topics require some knowledge and making joint decisions that have instant implications for daily life.


When can postnatal depression take hold in fathers?


Interestingly, the period of 3–6 months is when fathers are most at-risk of postnatal depression. Like mothers, paternal postnatal depression is often misdiagnosed as it becomes difficult to tell the difference between regular new-parent fatigue from a lack of sleep, and the actual symptoms of depression.


What is paternal postnatal depression?


Paternal postnatal depression can show up as not feeling an attachment to the baby and crippling fatigue. It has many common symptoms with depression, such as changes in appetite, difficulties sleeping, feeling hopeless, mood swings, excessive sleep or insomnia, stomach problems, feeling guilty and hopeless and worries about the future. Symptoms can also show up as aggression, poor parenting behaviours and drug and alcohol addiction.


Men have to navigate a new identity of being a dad and may not have the support of others, that women may have from midwives, a local mums group, online platforms such as MumsNet or a breastfeeding club. Same sex couples may also find that there are a lack of support groups, and heteronormative expectations of what it means to be “new parents”.


Fathers of any orientation may feel lost and miss the relatively “footloose” freedom that characterised pre-child existence. Asking for help may be harder as a man than as a woman.


As it happens, with mental health in general, women are much more likely to ask for help than men. Society has also changed which means that present day norms are different from norms that men and women may have grown up with. Within the couple, there may be expectations on both sides about how to manage the work associated with the new baby, and this may fall on top of employers expectations of work and limits to paternity leave.


Fathers’ mental health: why should we care?


Fathers’ mental health matters for fathers themselves to stop their feelings of distress and reduce risk of the onset of depression. There are also benefits for the mother , or same sex partner, and the baby. The father’s mental health is important for both the couple and the family unit. There’s a lot of evidence that postnatal depression in men can lead fathers to be less sensitive and more hostile. The bottom line is that fathers mental health matters for fathers, their partners, and the developing baby.




Play is good

Research suggests that fathers playing and interacting with the baby early on is good for babies development. A study from Imperial College London found that babies are more likely to be be advanced cognitively if their father has talked to and played with them from as young as 3 months old. Children are also found to benefit when fathers are involved in their day to day care and tasks.

Takeaway

Fathers’ mental health, both before and after birth, is a topic that is not talked about enough. It shouldn’t be taboo to be managing difficult feelings and moods after the arrival of a child. It can be difficult for men to get help if they are experiencing symptoms of depression after birth during the first year of a child’s life. The developing bond between child and father is important.

We need to do more to support fathers. This may be enabling fathers to talk about how they are feeling and get the support that works for them. More research and resources are needed to support both mothers and fathers pre-and post-birth.

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