When most think of postpartum depression, new mothers are at the forefront. However, recent studies show that mental health issues can impact new fathers just as much. According to the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), postnatal depression, sometimes referred to as parental depression, is estimated to impact 10% of new mothers and one in ten new fathers, generally within the first three to six months after a child is born or adopted into a family. While new fathers get less attention than mums, the statistics point to a need for greater awareness and support options for dads with postnatal depression.
Among new fathers, the reason behind parental depression can vary significantly. Causes range from relationship stress and financial instability to emotional challenges that come with having a child. For dads, there is often an increased amount of pressure placed on them to provide which can raise the stakes for developing parental depression in the early years of a child’s life. Regardless of the cause behind mental health issues relating to a new child, fathers need to take care to recognise the warning signs of the condition, the potential for a missed diagnosis, and their options for treatment and support.
Recognising the Warning Signs
Although the catalyst to postpartum depression varies from parent to parent, there are several common warning signs that should alert the individual or his partner to a potential issue. These symptoms include:
- Feeling low or despondent for an extended period
- Hopelessness or loneliness that does not subside
- An inability to cope with the child
- Feelings of guilt or anxiety
- Being highly irritable
- Retreating from social interactions and family commitments
- Lethargy and fatigue
- An inability to fall or stay asleep
- A change in appetite
- Headaches and stomach pains
- Feelings of inadequacy or an inability to cope
A parent experiencing these symptoms for more than a few days at a time should consult with their health provider immediately. In addition to these common issues, new dads may also have more severe mental health conditions develop after a child enters the family. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and postpartum anxiety may occur in rare cases. This makes it crucial to get the right diagnosis sooner rather than later.
Across mothers and fathers experiencing parental depression, missed diagnosis is common. According to a group of medical negligence claims specialists in the UK, fathers are particularly susceptible to remain undiagnosed when depression symptoms arise, for a variety of reasons. In some cases, new dads are reluctant to share their experiences with their doctor for fear of being shamed. Mental health has a stigma across nearly all populations, and the added pressure of male societal norms makes keeping symptoms to one’s self more likely.
In addition to the guilt and shame surrounding depression, the majority of medical professions spend more time and give more attention to new mothers and the child than the well-being of the father. Unless the symptoms are recognised and openly discussed with the doctor, there is no current screening or follow up as a standard of care for new parents. The good news is that there are treatment options for men with parental depression once a diagnosis is made.
Support and Treatment
Plans for treatment range as much as symptoms of parental depression, and not every solution will work the same for every parent. However, the first recommendation in most cases is simple lifestyle shifts. These may include exercise, eating a healthy, balanced diet, and being mindful about positive thinking and activities as it relates to being a parent. For some new parents, psychotherapy is suggested as a way to overcome or cope with symptoms. A licensed mental health professional offers emotional support and guidance, as well as a safe place to talk about experiences with parental depression. If these treatment plans are not successful over time, antidepressants may also be suggested as either a supplement or alternative.
One of the best strategies for managing the symptoms of parent depression for men is finding a support group that includes other new fathers struggling with similar mental health concerns. Several organisations offer free online and in-person communities that provide an environment that fosters encouragement and motivation for those living with parental depression. Partners, loved ones, friends, and family can also offer to help by giving new parents some time away from the child when needed, or simply providing emotional support when symptoms are severe. Any combination of these treatment and support options are beneficial for new fathers with parental depression.