As fathers in recent years have been encouraged to be more hands-on with their children and more supportive of their partners after the gruelling experience of childbirth and recovery from it, the number of new fathers struggling with some form of postnatal depression seems on the increase.
The fact that many families live away from their closest relatives means that the support networks of times past that would give the parents a break from caring for their new-borns are absent.
However, there may be some support on the way. With all the chaos going on in the UK government at the moment, it’s difficult to believe that any non-Brexit decisions are being made, but it was announced earlier this month that fathers whose partners were suffering with postnatal depression, anxiety or psychosis were also to be screened for mental health issues.
Some are concerned that the mental health of fathers is often overlooked in the days, weeks and months following a new arrival when attention is focussed on making sure mother and baby are well. Between 10 and 20 percent of women suffer some form of mental health disorder during pregnancy and after delivery, but among the fathers in these families some estimate that one in five also suffer from depression or anxiety.
What are the risks?
The rate of depression among men within the first year of becoming a father is double that of the general population, with one in ten becoming depressed during the mother’s pregnancy.
The peak time is between three and six months after the birth, but it often goes unreported as having a new-born in the home is often quite a stressful time. On top of that, only the mother can be formally diagnosed as having a perinatal mental health problem. So, it’s easy to see how it is not identified.
Aside from potentially having to deal with a partner struggling with postnatal mental health issues, there are other factors that increase the likelihood of poor mental health, such as being without a good support network, poverty, abuse during childhood and experiencing difficult times through bereavement, job insecurity, etc.
As for mothers, the experience of being a new parent often involves changes in the levels of stress hormones like testosterone and cortisol. Lack of sleep certainly doesn’t help, as that will also mess with the amounts of hormones in our bodies.
There is also a risk that the children’s development is affected by their parent if they are depressed, anxious or aggressive with them.
What are the symptoms?
While these might not be that easy to distinguish from the symptoms of being an exhausted new parent (and maybe that’s the point), here are a few possible signs of a father suffering with postnatal depression.
- A sense of helplessness or confusion about the future. Pretty understandable in the circumstances: nothing like a major new responsibility to make you question your life choices.
- Marital conflict, frustration and anger, violence against partners or negative parenting behaviour. Running on the older, more aggressive sections of the brain means that everything is assessed as fight-or-flight and that means trouble. This means that fathers affected in this way find less of a bond and are less likely to engage with the children; they are also much more likely to talk negatively about and to the kids and parent in a harsher way than they might otherwise.
- Insomnia, drug or alcohol abuse, or physical symptoms like toothaches, indigestion, diarrhoea, changes in weight or appetite, and nausea.
- Withdrawal from family life, work and social situations. With any sense of joy taken out by depression, many human interactions no longer seem worthwhile, which often means that there is even less interaction to help overcome a feeling of being trapped in the unhappy parenting situation. This then triggers guilt as the father thinks he should
The NHS Choices website has a self-assessment questionnaire if it’s something that you feel concerned about and want to check that you’re okay.
What support can you get?
It is very important to get some help if you suspect that you are clinically depressed as sufferers can convince themselves that they have failed everyone and that their families would be better off without them at a time when they are needed the most.
This kind of distorted thinking can lead to damaging relationships with partners and the children too, which then feeds back into the sense of isolation.
Talk to your GP or your partner’s health visitor about the situation and how you are feeling. They can then arrange for counselling or other therapy and prescribe some medication, if required.
Approaches to address the issues might include peer support groups, couple’s behavioural therapy sessions or parenting interventions. It can be scary to admit there might be an issue, especially if you fear that it might mean your children being taken away from you, but the problem is unlikely to go away on its own.
Alternatively, you can contact Pandas, an organisation that support people suffering with perinatal mental health disorders. There is also the Fatherhood Institute, which describes itself as the UK’s fatherhood think-and-do tank, and the Birth Trauma Association, who specialise in helping people during and following difficult births.
The Natural Childbirth Trust also have a helpline that offers practical and emotional support for many areas of pregnancy, birth and parenthood on 0300 330 0700.
Looking after yourself helps you to look after others
It’s very easy when looking after small children to put their needs first and neglect your own. While this is what expected of parents, generally speaking, it can lead to parental burnout.
One helpful tactic is to exercise some self-care by making sure you eat healthily, avoid alcohol and smoking and get plenty of sleep at regular hours, if you can. (Ah, the old sleep-when-the-baby-sleeps routine…)
Being physically active and choosing to relax by making or reading something rather than watching TV can also help boost your mood.
As with aircraft safety demonstrations, you need to fasten your own oxygen mask before helping your children.
Depression is for Christmas, not just for life
Christmas is often quite a hard time for people who might be struggling with their mental health for a variety of reasons, many of them interwoven with family life.
It’s a time when many people feel a lot of pressure to be happy or to try and create a ‘perfect’ Christmas. So, as it’s especially important that fathers keep their cool, we’ve come up with a couple of tips.
Firstly, as much as you need to relax and forget about the troubles of the world, some experts advise that you don’t dump your routine completely – for example, keep your bedtime at roughly the same time –as sticking to your usual pattern helps with mental fitness.
Secondly, keep up with regular exercise – maybe a couple of bracing post-turkey hikes into the country – take it easy on the all-you-can-eat chocolates and cakes festive table, and try not to indulge too much with the drinks trolley either.
Thirdly, if scrolling through someone’s Instagram-friendly Xmas with a gorgeous tree, witty presents and matching crackers gives you the fear, put down the phone and concentrate on the people in the room with you. They might be annoying but there’s a good chance they love you and you might even get a half-decent game of charades out of it.
Merry Christmas to all you newly-minted families out there, and remember to remember on the 25th of December what a great job you’re doing, even when it doesn’t feel like it.