Postnatal Depression And Men: Understanding Mental Health In New Fathers

Postnatal Depression And Men: Understanding Mental Health In New Fathers

Becoming a parent is a life changing experience, and while for many it is an experience that brings a lot of joy and value into their lives, for many it brings on a lot of stress, frustration, worry and concern. And for some still, it can lead to mental health challenges. Postnatal depression is a term we often associate with mothers, who are experiencing symptoms of depression after giving birth. However, increasingly men are also experiencing depression once baby has arrived. While every parent’s experience is unique, there are some key themes that are common across fathers’ who experience postnatal depression, and some key signs and symptoms that we can keep an eye out for.

The advice in this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and not intended to replace medical advice. If you or anyone else you know needs support with their mental health, please seek out support from your local GP, child health nurse or mental health professional.

Postnatal Depression In Men – What Research Tells Us

Before we get started, there is some confusion around the terminology that is out there, so to explain:

Antenatal Depression and Anxiety – Depression or Anxiety experienced during the ‘pre-birth’ or pregnancy stage of having a baby. Both men and women can experience this, and they may experience either depression or anxiety, or they may have both.

Postnatal Depression and Anxiety – Depression or Anxiety experienced during ‘post-birth’ or within the first year of baby being born. Both men and women can experience this, and they may experience either depression or anxiety, or they may have both. It may also be referred to at times as Postpartum Depression and Anxiety, particularly in the United States. There are some technical differences between the terms, but most of what you read online will use these terms interchangeably.

Perinatal Depression and Anxiety – A term that covers the entire ‘pre-birth’ and ‘post-birth’ stages. It is the umbrella term that covers both Antenatal and Postnatal Depression and Anxiety. Both men and women can experience this, and they may experience either depression or anxiety, or they may have both.

Current figures for Australia highlighted by Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) place Antenatal Depression and Anxiety as being experienced by 1 in 10 women, and 1 in 20 men, while the experience of Postnatal Depression and Anxiety as being experienced by 1 in 7 new mums and up to 1 in 10 new fathers’. Similar results for the United States are highlighted by Postpartumdepression.org. While there is a higher likelihood for women to experience Antenatal or Postnatal depression, we can see that fathers’ are also at quite a high risk of experiencing either one of these mental health disorders.

Postnatal Depression and Men

Reasons Fathers Experience Postnatal Depression

The reasons why dads may experience postnatal depression can be varied, but it’s important to recognise that all new parents have just gone through one of the biggest life changes, and that in itself cause a lot of stress. My article ‘Reasons You May Hate Being A Dad‘ talks about some reasons why new fathers’ struggle with becoming a parent. Some other common thoughts and feelings that occur include:

  • Feeling unsure about how to help their partner and their role as a new dad
  • Feeling unable to connect with or bond with baby
  • Thinking that they need to be the rock of the family, and keep everything together
  • Thinking that they need to be the main financial provider, but also be at home more to help out at home
  • Feeling guilty (check out my blog post on Dads Guilt for more details)
  • Feeling resentment or frustration due to changes in their relationship with their partner
  • Feeling overwhelmed with all the information and responsibilities
  • Feeling confused about their ‘low mood’ during a time when we expect to be ‘happy’

It is important to note, that it is common for these thoughts and feelings to occur in most new parents, and having these thoughts or feelings isn’t always a cause for concern. However, if you are noticing these thoughts and feelings as becoming persistent and you are unable to shake them, then it may be more of a concern.

Postnatal Depression and Men

Other Factors That Impact Fathers

While the experience of the father definitely plays the biggest role in Postnatal Depression, there are other factors that can also increase the likelihood of experiencing Postnatal Depression, including:

  • Being isolated from other supports, including friends or family
  • A past history of depression or anxiety
  • A past history of trauma
  • Sleep deprivation – particularly if it is impacting a fathers’ ability to engage at work or in the home
  • Caring for a partner who is also experiencing Postnatal Depression. Statistics from Postpartumdepression.org suggest that up to half of men who are caring for a partner with postpartum depression will experience it themselves.
  • Having experienced Antenatal Depression during the pregnancy period.

Once again, having experienced these other factors doesn’t mean you will experience Postnatal Depression, but it may mean that you are more ‘predisposed’ to experiencing it.

Postnatal Depression and Men

Postnatal Depression Symptoms In Men

For postnatal depression, it can be an invisible illness for many, and not immediately identifiable by those around the new father. With all the changes that occur with becoming a parent, it can sometimes be thought that any change in character or presentation may be related to caring for a newborn. However, there are some key signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Constant tiredness or exhaustion, or difficulties sleeping. I know you’re probably thinking ‘what parent isn’t tired and not sleeping properly?’ But we are looking for exhaustion beyond what you would expect for a new parent. That might look like being extra forgetful, or not being able to focus or concentrate, more often than not for a long period (about 2 weeks or more)
  • Loss of interest in things
  • Changes in appetite
  • Emotional withdrawal from others and baby, or even an increase in frustration, feeling annoyed or feeling irritable
  • Avoiding or isolating themselves from others, including avoiding questions or communication with others (i.e. not replying to texts or calls, ignoring questions you ask about how they are coping, or even appearing ‘extra happy’ and ‘glossing over’ questions around coping)
  • Avoiding baby (possibly out of fear of looking after baby or uncertainty about how to look after baby)
  • Increase use of alcohol or other drugs (including prescription medication)
  • Thoughts of suicide, wanting to disappear or similar

While we expect most new parents to experience some of these symptoms to some extent, anything that occurs more often than not for 2 weeks or more could be signs that they are not coping or that they need assistance.

Postnatal Depression and Men

Treatment Options

What is important to note with Postnatal Depression is that it is a real illness, that with the right support and treatment is only a temporary experience. For new parents, if they aren’t aware of the risk of Postnatal depression and what it looks like, then they may think that this is what parenting is supposed to be like. So if we suspect someone is experiencing Postnatal Depression, or if you feel you are experiencing these symptoms, it is important to remember:

  • Talking about your experience helps. While talking to someone you trust is better than not talking to anyone, talking to a health professional trained in treating Postnatal depression is important.
  • Most people recover within the first year once they seek treatment, and potentially much earlier if they seek treatment early.
  • It is not a sign of weakness, being an unfit parent or being an unfit partner, to seek out help and acknowledge that you are having difficulties. It is a sign of strength to reach out and acknowledge that you need others in your journey to help you reach your goal.
  • If you are unsure where to start, chat with your GP (or a doctor at your local clinic), or a child health nurse.

As for treatment, the following options may be explored:

  • Counselling and Psychological support. This may look like a referral to a Counsellor or Psychologist who has experience or is trained in supporting parents who are experiencing Postnatal Depression. Counselling looks at exploring your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and how they are all linked, to help you to identify new ways to cope with any challenging experiences while also setting up new behaviours to help you achieve your goals.
    • Depending on who you see, they may vary their approach based on their training and your specific circumstances and learning style.
    • It is important to find someone that you feel is the ‘right fit’ for you. If by the second session you aren’t feeling they are the right fit for you, let them know. As a trained Counsellor or Psychologist, they can support you to find out what you need from therapy, and either adjust their approach (if you are OK to give them another go) or refer you to someone who meets that criteria.
    • It is also important to be open to the idea of counselling. Counselling can seem a ‘bit weird’ at first, and make us not want to really do it. But by being open to giving it a shot we open ourselves up to being better able to adopt new strategies.
  • Medication may be explored with you by your doctor, depending on the severity of the Postnatal Depression. While your doctor will talk to you about your specific circumstances, they may recommend both counselling and medication together.
    • If you are unsure about medication, make sure to list your concerns and run through them with your doctor. Common concerns include side effects and how long you may need to take them.
    • While not a concern for men, it is important to be aware that for women who are breastfeeding they will need to let their doctor know as some medication may be passed onto baby through breast milk.

Postnatal Depression and Men

It’s OK To Ask For Help

Other than seeking out treatment, there are other things that someone who is experiencing Postnatal Depression can do to help cope with their experience.

  • Reach out to your social supports. This might look like:
    • Talking to your partner about how you are feeling. For men, this may be tough (especially if we are seeing our partner go through all of their emotions) but it can be extremely useful because they are likely to understand and know your experience best. They may also want to seek out help together, which may make things easier.
    • Asking your friends for help with practical things around the house, or just even to ‘hang out’
    • Chatting about your experience with someone you trust
    • Finding a support group of people (online or in person) who are going through, or have experienced, something similar.
  • Keep up your intake of food, and avoid alcohol or other drugs.
    • Eating well gives us the energy to make decisions and take action, and steering clear of alcohol and drugs allows us to keep a clear head for decisions that we need to make.
  • Exercise or get outdoors as often as possible.
    • The brain and body are connected, and a lot of research highlights the importance of exercise and being outdoors with feeling good. Even though you may not feel like it, start with something small like standing outside for a few minutes throughout the day.
  • Recognise that parenting is challenging. It is normal to find it difficult, it is normal to feel unsure about your baby, it is normal to find it difficult to bond with baby. All of being a parent is a challenge, and it is a skill that can be developed with support from others.

The advice in this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and not intended to replace medical advice. If you or anyone else you know needs support with their mental health, please seek out support from your local GP, child health nurse or mental health professional.

  • In Australia, you can contact the PANDA helpline on 1300 726 306 for support. Or check out their website panda.org.au
  • To find support in your country, check out postpartum.net where they have a list of countries and support services for each country.

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