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Ask DadPad: Can dads get post-natal depression?
Posted on 4th September 2020
*** Trigger warning ***
As part of the PANDAS Foundation Post-Natal Depression Awareness Week 2020 (#PNDAW20), we’ve put together an article which considers whether and how post-natal depression can affect new dads.
Post-natal depression – that’s just for mums, right?
Wrong! Post-natal depression (or PND) – as defined by the NHS – is:
A type of depression that many parents experience after having a baby. It’s a common problem, affecting more than 1 in every 10 women within a year of giving birth. It can also affect fathers and partners.
A widely-held view is that post-natal depression is based on hormones, and that – as only mums experience a hormone change in pregnancy and post-birth – men can’t get PND. However, this perception is wrong on both counts.
Firstly, hormonal changes affect dads as well as mums, as Kieran Anders of DadMatters UK confirms:
Just as mums experience hormonal changes around the time of birth, there’s also a drop in testosterone and a rise in oestrogen in men, so they also experience hormonal change (although it is more nuanced).
If that surprises you, there’s a perfectly logical reason for it. Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist, has explained that the drop in testosterone helps dads to become a more sensitive father, better able to meet their child’s every need.
Secondly, it’s now recognised that PND is caused by a combination of two things – hormonal changes and situational changes. Mental health campaigner and educator, Dr Andy Mayers, explains:
Often, the perception is that dads cannot get PND because it’s hormonal. As it happens, hormones play a very small part in the risk for maternal PND. Environmental factors (such as income, housing, partner support, the mother not having her own mother close by, education, etc) and psychological ones (previous mental health, coping skills, etc) play a much larger part in maternal PND.
And therefore, as both dads and mums will be experiencing the impact of hormonal, environmental and psychological factors, as well as situational changes – including lack of sleep, added responsibility, increased worry about all sorts of things, dealing with your wider family, etc – it soon becomes clear that PND is just as likely to affect you as it is to affect your partner. In fact, statistics suggest that – like mums – somewhere in the region of 10% of all new dads are known to experience post-natal depression.
Post-natal depression – what to look out for
So what are the symptoms that you need to look out for which might suggest that you are suffering from PND?
Dr Andy Mayers has provided a list of symptoms that could be experienced by a person experiencing post-natal depression which includes:
- Low mood
- Poor motivation
- Changes in appetite
- Poor sleep (over and above what normally happens with a new baby)
- Poor concentration
- Feelings of guilt and/or worthlessness
- Thoughts of death or dying (including suicidal thoughts)
Although these symptoms can be experienced by both mum and dad, it’s worth being aware that, where dads are concerned, you may also/alternatively experience PND in other ways. Kelly Arnold, Interim Perinatal Mental Health Team Lead at the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board explains:
For men, symptoms may feel or be recognised a little differently – feeling angry/irritated more easily, increased consumption of alcohol or cigarettes, needing to exercise more or finding that you would rather be out of the family home. Dads can also feel that they are not bonded with their baby, too.
Mental health campaigner Mark Williams has also explained how PND symptoms look different in men: “There’s more avoidance, overworking, drinking and substance abuse.”
Mark suffered a breakdown five years after first witnessing the traumatic birth of his son, and then supporting his wife through severe post-natal depression, which manifested soon after the family returned home from hospital. He experienced:
…worry that I wasn’t going to be good enough to be a father, [concern about] how I was going to support this child, waking up with nightmares about the birth… [I was] frustrated, drinking and worried for my situation, trying to avoid myself, family and friends.
During that postnatal period, my personality changed. I remember punching the sofa, I bust my hand. I was avoiding situations. I was using alcohol… I couldn’t tell my wife how I was feeling because I didn’t want that to impact on her mental health. And I was actually having suicidal thoughts in the postnatal period as well. But as a man I was told just to man up and get on with it. “What have you got to be depressed about? You didn’t give birth to the baby.” I was more concerned about my wife.
One of the most important things that you and your partner can do in the run up to baby’s arrival is to start reading up on potential mental health difficulties that you both might face (and it’s brilliant that you’re here, as that means you’re already doing that!), and talking together about how you might deal with them.
It’s important to be open to the fact that – even if you and/or your partner have no history of mental health problems – it is something that you might need to deal with. Preparation and communication are both key.
It will be a huge help for you to learn as much as you can on baby care in advance, to help you gain confidence and reduce the risk of feeling overwhelmed and/or anxious in your new role. This, in turn, may help reduce the risk of your mental health deteriorating. We’d also recommend that you get hold of a DadPad and/or DadPad app as these both contain lots of good advice on key skills for new parents as well as information on mental health for mum and dad, and the app will also have links to sources of local and national support and crisis response.
It’s also important to talk to those around you – including, of course, baby’s mum – about what they should be looking out for in you. Kieran encourages dads-to-be and new dads to “keep open the lines of communication with the people closest to you to recognise possible changes in [your] behaviour.”
This period of your lives will be a huge test of your relationship – Kerry at PANDAS comments: “…the mental endurance test of supporting a pregnant partner through pregnancy, birth and beyond is testing” – and strategies that the two of you come up with to help deal with this will not only be beneficial to you both, in terms of building a strong, long-lasting relationship, but also for your family’s future wellbeing. Be open to the fact that “having a new baby can be stressful and often adds to a lot of mixed emotions within the family unit… [and remember that], by speaking with your partner about your worries, this is the first step in reducing your risk of further mental health deterioration” (Kelly Arnold).
Finally, don’t ever forget that you, “…as a father, are equal in terms of importance …[and it is therefore] crucial you give yourself the time, self-care and accept any support and help that could be offered” (Kerry at PANDAS).
So, if you do find yourself struggling, what should you do?
Firstly, and probably most importantly, you need to talk to someone. The obvious candidates for this are, of course, your partner, your family and/or your friends, but this might not always be possible. You might be worried about adding to your partner’s own stresses or difficulties, for example.
Another option might be to talk to one of the health professionals around you – such as your GP, or your family’s Health Visitor or Midwife. Remember that those services “are all available to support dad’s mental health as well as mum’s” (Kelly Arnold), so don’t feel that they won’t be interested.
If none of this feels like something you can do, Kieran at Dad Matters also advocates for finding a peer support group (if there is one) near you, or even an online support group, “where you can let it all out anonymously.” The crucial thing is that you DO take the steps to unburden yourself as: “Once you’ve done this, then you can take the steps that you need to fix it. Acknowledging how you’re feeling before you get to the point of needing professional support means that you’ll be less likely to need professional support.”
Kelly Arnold supports this advice: “…being open about how you are feeling about your new baby or any worries that you have will be the first step in making those worries a little less overwhelming.”
Importantly, remember that your baby needs a dad who will read with her, play with her and interact with her. A dad who is depressed is less likely to want to do this. The close emotional relationship that babies, infants and children have with their carers will influence them for the whole of their lives. Staying positive and emotionally well will help you influence your child’s future for the better, and give them the best start. Don’t be ashamed if you’re struggling – seek help, because YOU matter!
Sources of support:
PANDAS Foundation UK
- FREE helpline: 0808 1961 776. Available on all landlines from Monday – Sunday 11.00 am-10.00 pm, the helpline is manned by a team of trained volunteers who will be happy to chat to you and direct you to the right support.
- Email Support: email@example.com, available 365 days a year. They’ll respond within 72 hours, and you are invited to get in touch if you’d like any more information regarding perinatal mental illness or are looking for support for yourself or your partner, friend or colleague.
- PANDAS also have two Facebook groups that you might like to follow: (1) their main PANDAS Foundation page, on which their social media team updates on current perinatal mental health news and reports; and (2) their PANDAS Dads private group, where the PANDAS Dads volunteers are on hand, seven days a week, to offer support and information for dads and carers affected by perinatal mental illness.
- FREE helpline: 116 123. Available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Samaritans’ volunteers will listen to you, with no judgement or pressure, to help you work through what’s on your mind.
- If you find it easier to write things down, you can also email them on firstname.lastname@example.org (with a 24-hour response time) or write them a letter.
Mind‘s website also includes a list of mental health crisis helplines and listening services, which you may find useful, as well as a partners’ perinatal mental health page.
NCT also have a PND in Dads webpage.
A longer version of this article was first published on the DadPad blog on 28 July 2020. You can view the original here.