The idea that male postnatal depression exists has long been considered in the same terms as man flu. Reactions can vary from a raised eyebrow to thinly veiled contempt when the subject is broached. Familiar gender stereotypes entrench the belief that a dad ‘can’t get’ postnatal depression. A viewpoint justified on the basis of a perceived limited role in pregnancy, childbirth and the early months of life.
The reality is that male postnatal depression is real. Why? Because new dads go through a similar emotional, physical and mental rollercoaster as new mums. The upheaval, trauma and radical change that comes with parenthood affects both men and women. In the case of new fathers this might be the combination of new/expanded responsibilities at home plus the pressure of potentially becoming the sole bread-winner for the family.
What have the dads got to be depressed about?
The situation could be likened to the classic scene from the infamous Monty Python film ‘The Life of Brian’. The Peoples Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front?) lament ‘what have the Roman’s ever done for us?’
They could easily be swapped for a council of mums debating ‘what have the dad’s got to be depressed about?’ The punchline – spoiler alert – is of course that the group begin to rhyme off a list of very robust rebuttals.
A ground-breaking study in New Zealand revealed that while men are less likely to seek help, they are just as likely as women to experience postnatal depression.
Other data suggests this can mean as many as 1 in 10 new dads experience postnatal depression and research by NCT suggests more than 1 in 3 new fathers are worried about their mental health.
Misunderstanding postnatal depression
Postnatal depression is not completely understood. Previous theories believed it an entirely hormonal issue. This has been widely discounted. In turn that has undermined one of the primary arguments against male postnatal depression. If men do not experience the same hormonal changes as women, there is no trigger for postnatal depression.
Current thinking considers any form of postnatal depression to be a combination of birth trauma, changes in the relationship between mum and dad, isolation and financial pressures. Whilst the experiences of new mothers and fathers differ, they share almost all of these challenges.
Trauma, isolation and anxiety
A traumatic birth is an horrific episode for any mum. The experience for dad is distressing for different but no less significant reasons. Many men who suffer from postnatal depression can trace its origins back, in part, to a traumatic birth. The associated feelings of fear and helplessness during a difficult labour can remain long after the child is born.
After birth, women with postnatal depression often experience exhaustion, feelings of isolation and a sense of being overwhelmed by the demands of their new-born. Once again the experience of a father is not too dissimilar.
Whilst a mother is exhausted from feeding and sleepless nights, a father can be exhausted by managing an increased workload around the house and caring for his partner. A new mother may feel isolated as she stays home with her baby but a father can experience similar feelings of abandonment and rejection as his partner focuses her attention on their child.
Slow acceptance of male postnatal depression
We are reaching a critical point where it is understood that male postnatal depression exists. However the glacial speed at which it is being accepted is significant for two interconnected reasons.
Firstly the traditional structure of support services in the postnatal period is geared towards mother and baby. Slow acceptance of postnatal depression in men will translate to slow change in how we support fathers. Our society needs to take a more family-focused approach to perinatal and postnatal care. Only then will male postnatal depression be treated on equal terms.
The impact of male postnatal depression on children
Secondly we need to actively consider the impact of paternal postnatal depression on the development of babies. Research in the field is increasingly demonstrating a direct link between a child’s psychosocial and cognitive development and the influence of their father. Consequently we cannot continue to write off male postnatal depression as simply a sign of ‘weakness’ or a myth.
The alternative is to continue leaving men with postnatal depression to fend for themselves. Not only will that harm parents but it will also create more mental health issues in the future. Sons and daughters will suffer as a result of undiagnosed and unsupported paternal depression.
Counselling and support for new parents
Are you or your partner struggling to cope with parenthood? Is it causing tension in your relationship and leaving you feeling isolated and anxious? The Spark’s counselling services are available to help you and your partner cope with the challenges of becoming parents.
Our couples counselling provides an opportunity to talk about your experiences and perspective with a trained counsellor. To find out more freephone our team on 0808 802 0050 or complete a counselling enquiry form.