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There is a growing interest in the impact of birth on dads, particularly post-natal depression. Oli Haill explores the issues.
As any sleep deprived parent will tell you, looking after a baby is not always sweetness and light. And sometimes other unwanted issues will arise on top of those challenges and nudge you from just tired or worried, into stress, anxiety and depression.
Post-natal depression is an issue that used to only be associated with mums, but mental health issues can affect dads as well, as a growing body of research testifies.
The number of men who become depressed in the first year after becoming a dad is in fact double that of the general population, with one in 10 expectant fathers on average experiencing some symptoms of depression during their partner’s pregnancy, such as panic attacks.
Most dads are either unaware that they are suffering from what would be classed as depression, or perhaps due to the historic masculine approach to denying anything’s wrong with you, deny the possibility to themselves and others. Many others are suffering in silence which can have dangerous results.
Not only can the condition seriously disrupt a father’s interactions with their child and bonding between father and child, but UK research published last year of more than 3,000 families found that a teenage girl was more at risk of developing mental health problems if her father had suffered from post-natal depression. Paternal postnatal depression also has negative impacts on the family, including increasing emotional and behavioural problems among their children and increasing conflicts in the marital relationship.
There are fathers and fathers-to-be who have gone on to take their own lives.
Mark Williams could have been one such dad. Mark’s wife, Michelle, had a difficult labour and was rushed into have an emergency caesarean, an experience that traumatised them both.
“Afterwards my wife had severe postnatal depression. I witnessed my wife trying to take her life – which triggered another form of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” he says. “I didn’t bond with my son in the initial weeks. I just thought he was lucky to be alive.”
Due to fathers generally being the secondary carer and a range of other factors, their feelings and needs were largely bypassed by health services.
And it wasn’t until years later that Mark, who had got into working in mental health services after his wife’s experience, was diagnosed as having been suffering from post-natal depression.
“Five years after the birth of my son, I lost my grandfather and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Those little trauma bombs as they’re called. I didn’t even know I was going through depression. I started drinking heavily as a coping mechanism, I bust my hand just punching the sofa. I was just shutting down then, having suicidal thoughts again,” he says.
“Though I’m from a close-knit Valleys community, there’s a stigma about depression. I found it hard to talk about feelings with friends,” he says.
“I was in a car one day and I just felt life was so unfair I just broke down crying, not knowing if my wife was going to get better. It was lucky I phoned someone. I was put on medication, counselling and access to community mental health services.”
Having talked to hundreds of dads over the years, he says that emotions are harder to share for men, but that there are ways to help yourself or for friends and family and health services to all recognise the symptoms and put you on a path to getting help. As many men find it difficult to tap into exactly how they are feeling or why, a better way to understand if they are suffering inner torments can be to study their actions rather than their words.
“The Edinburgh post-natal depression scale is a tool for helping diagnose post-natal depression for mums, but for dads I would more ask them about their behaviours really than ask those sort of questions. So, are you feeling angry? Are you drinking more? Are you avoiding situations? Do you feel paranoid? Those questions I would look for in a dad.
“Men use different coping skills, it might be fighting, drinking. Men suppress it more, it’s harder for them to show their feelings and emotions,” says Mark.
“Some of the fathers I speak to, they can’t bond with their children, they struggle with anxiety attacks and intrusive thoughts. And what might be happening is they don’t change nappies because maybe they’ve got intrusive thoughts like they’re going to bash the babies head against the bars of the cot. So my argument is, if dad is not engaging in the family there’s likely to be a reason why.”
Mark’s example is dramatic, but for some new and prospective dads it might not take as much to set off depressive thoughts. It could be excessive stress just from becoming a parent, or a lack of social support for parenting or even feeling excluded from mother-infant bonding. These feelings are not rare, either, with research by the NCT finding more than one in three new fathers are concerned about their mental health.
But if you can speak about your experiences, to your partner, family, friends, GP or even look for help online, there is plenty of information and tips to help men find the support they need from parenting charities such as NCT, Family Lives and Mind — all three also offer phone helplines where you can call anonymously — and there is also Best Beginnings’ Baby Buddy app, which has a Crisis Messenger service.
You will be more likely to recover quickly if you can acknowledge the issue and seek a solution. The NHS will also now look to provide another safety net. Last December it announced that mental health assessments will be offered to partners of any new mothers or pregnant women who are suffering from anxiety, depression or more severe disorders, with dads also offered referrals for treatment if relevant.
This was, it said, a “landmark decision” to provide support for new fathers, with more detailed plans also revealing that there will be attention paid to mothers’ and fathers’ mental health across the first year.
This was a historic step as it is the first time that the father has been mentioned in maternal and newborn health policy. It is also the first official recognition that intervention is needed to prevent damage when thing go wrong for either parent.
It came about because the mental health of the father has been recognised as having a major impact on the mother, on the child and on the father himself . It is also a recognition that the father is important and that we need to intervene to protect the whole family. Moreover, it means that mental ill health in fathers is being recognised as not being a rarity.
But even with that change, dads still need to be honest with themselves about how they are feeling, says Mark, and not question whether it is a legitimate depressive experience. What’s more, for many dads, help and relief can be relatively simple to obtain.
“Depending on the severity, some dads just need information and to go on a walk and get some fresh air. That can alleviate a very low mood,” Mark says. “But then you’ve got the other end which is much more serious. It very much depends on the person. A lack of sleep is another factor. Dads might already have anxiety in the workplace and then the baby comes along and it can be a vicious circle.”
For any dad suffering from panic attacks or intrusive thoughts, Mark advises: “Health visitors are more aware now. Just say ‘I’m struggling here’ and they will get you some support. If you don’t say anything it’s likely that they aren’t going to know and won’t do anything. Or go online – there’s a huge amount of information and help out there. As hard as it is sometimes you’ve got to take responsibility to get the support.”