Depression in Fathers
Coping with Paternal Post-Natal Depression
It seems that dads can get depressed after the birth of their babies too – not just moms. In the world of mental health, paternal post-natal depression is being discussed more and more, as fathers around the world are taking an increasingly active role in the upbringing of their infants. These increased responsibilities – along with the adjustment of having a new baby in the home – mean that men are now more likely than ever to show signs of post-natal depression: a diagnosis that traditionally was thought to apply only to women. Given the impact that parental well-being has on the development of our children, paternal post-natal depression is something that we, as a society, really need to spend more time talking about. That’s exactly what we’re about to do today! Read on to learn more.
What is Paternal Post-Natal Depression (PND)?
In women, PND is a type of clinical depression that occurs during pregnancy and/or up to four weeks following childbirth. At least, this is the time-frame specified by the American Psychiatric Association’s bible of mental disorders (the DSM 5) – but this is a hotly contested issue, with many arguing that PND can occur during the first six months following childbirth.
The DSM 5 implies that only women can be diagnosed with PND. But what about the dads? Research shows that men can experience Paternal PND and that, in fact, many of them do. How many? Statistics suggest that up to 5% of fathers in Australia experience paternal PND; and a study involving Swedish fathers found that awhopping 27% of men in the study experienced depressive symptoms in the post-natal period.
How is PND Different to ‘Ordinary’ Depression?
PND presents in the same way as clinical depression would. The symptoms include altered sleeping patterns and appetite, poor motivation, low mood, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, increased irritability and suicidality. So, although they look the same on the surface, PND is only diagnosed when the symptoms start around the time of childbirth. But, of course, the major difference between the two has to do with what’s going on externally, rather than internally. In other words, people with PND face particular and unique challenges: namely, the addition of a small infant to the family!
What Causes PND?
At this point, we don’t know exactly what causes PND in men: more research is needed. In women, some researchers have suggested that the depression is linked to hormonal changes – although this idea has been strongly critiqued by feminist organizations. We all know that a new-born brings along some serious challenges that aren’t related to our hormones: increased financial pressures, relationship and lifestyle changes, impaired sleep, an ongoing preoccupation for the child’s wellbeing and societal expectations that we step-up into the role of being the perfect parent. All this stress can overwhelm the parents’ coping capacities, which can trigger a depression – especially in people who are already at risk. Interestingly, one study showed a strong link between maternal and paternal post-natal depression; so, if mom is struggling, it’s likely that dad will too.
There are various treatment options available for those who are seeking help. On the whole, paternal PND is treated in a similar way to regular depression. The first step is to speak to your general practitioner (GP) or clinical psychologist, who can help you to work out the best way forward. Often, your healthcare provider will suggest one of the following treatments:
Psychotherapy: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Psychodynamic Therapy are two popular forms of individual therapy. CBT aims to identify and change problematic thought patterns. It’s usually a shorter-term option than psychodynamic therapy, which provides a safe space for exploring unconscious feelings and thoughts from your childhood that continue to affect you as an adult. Regardless of the approach that you take, psychotherapy aims to link you up with the right therapist – someone who can listen whilst showing care and support as you travel through the therapy process.
Psychotherapy might also help you to identify things that you can do in your own time to better manage your condition. For example, physical activity can be incredibly helpful: you could kill two birds with one stone by taking your baby out for a walk, thereby tapping into the dual benefits of exercise and quality time with your child. Becoming more involved in your baby’s day-to-day care – e.g. helping with feeding, dressing and nappy-changes – can also give you a sense of being closer to your whole family. Wherever possible, talk to your baby and make eye contact while you are helping out – this will strengthen the father-child bond. Additionally, this study showed that Australian dads who accessed educational materials and spoke with other fathers were better able to reduce their symptoms. So, read up, speak out and empower yourself!
Medication: Antidepressants can be prescribed by your GP or a psychiatrist. Speak to your doctor about whether this might be a good option for you. Antidepressants are often used in conjunction with therapy for best results. One thing to keep in mind is that your GP will probably suggest that you stay on anti-depressants for a minimum period of 6 months – so this isn’t necessarily a quick fix.
Support Groups: Often, it can be incredibly therapeutic to connect with people who are facing similar challenges to you. Speak to your doctor or therapist – or consult with doctor Google – to find out about possible paternal post-natal depression support groups close to you.
Couples Counselling: Having a baby can put a lot of strain on your relationship – as can having PND. Often, these changes can lead one (or both) parents to feel less supported than they were before the child. Couples counselling can help you to solidify the bond between your partner and yourself, so that you’re better able to lean on one-another through this difficult process.
Barriers to Treatment
Dad’s with PND face certain society-based challenges that makes it harder for them to get the help that they need. For starters, paternal post-natal depression is not yet recognized as an official psychological disorder. As a result – and particularly in Australian hospitals – dads with this disorder simply don’t get picked-up on by the healthcare system as often as moms, who receive routine screening.
But beyond that, our society is structured in a way that makes it harder for men to own-up to their emotional struggles and ask for help when they need it. Although these gendered expectations are slowly starting to change, men who face post-natal struggles tend to feel ashamed and guilty about, for example, failing to support their family in the way that they would like to. Dads in this position often feel that they’re alone and that they can’t reach out for help, because this would amount to a sign of failure or weakness. If this describes you, rest assured: paternal PND is a struggle faced by many men; and as we have seen, there is help available.
It can be challenging to admit that you need help. Indeed, simply owning up to this truth can be the most difficult step to take. But the pressures of raising a new-born are incredibly real and it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. In addition to improving your own mental and physical wellbeing by tackling your depression, your baby also stands to benefit. Research suggests that a depressed parent can interrupt the bonding process, which can negatively affect the baby’s emotional, social and cognitive development. Don’t let society’s perceptions about paternal post-natal depression get in the way of what’s best for you, your baby and your family. Remember, in the words of Les Brown: “ask for help not because you are weak, but because you want to remain strong”.