There is an ever-increasing amount of attention and research on the experience of maternal perinatal (prenatal and postnatal) depression, but there is less awareness or attention on paternal perinatal depression. More recently we are beginning to see some momentum in Increasing awareness into Dads’ experiences, however further research is needed in order to determine how to support Dads better. This is important, as the incidence of paternal perinatal depression is 1 in 10 dads, which means many of us may know a dad who has suffered.
Perinatal Depression in Dads
This can present in slightly different ways to new Mums. The first signs of perinatal depression in Dads are often:
- increases in anger and irritability, or aggressive outbursts
- greater impulsive or risk-taking behaviour such as drinking more alcohol or using other substances
- changes in work behaviour (e.g. working a lot more or a lot less);
- withdrawing from relationships
- poor concentration
- low motivation
What causes Dads’ perinatal depression?
There are lots of factors that can contribute to a Dad’s experience of perinatal depression. Some of the most important include:
- Biological changes: like Mums, Dads also experience a change in hormones following the arrival of a baby. Changes in hormones levels, such as lower levels of testosterone and low vasopressin/oxytocin level, may be related to higher levels of postnatal depression.
- Prior experience of depression: if a Dad has previously experienced depression, they are more likely to show signs of depression in the perinatal period.
- Significant change in lifestyle: Dads’ lives also significantly change with the arrival of a new bub – they may experience reduced freedom, and difficulty engaging in activities such as exercise and social events that have previously acted as coping strategies and reduced stress.
- Relationship difficulties and missing their partner: some Dads may miss the quality time and friendship that they have previously enjoyed with their partner. Dads can also report feeling excluded from the mother-infant bond and suffer irrelevancy. In addition, relationship satisfaction and conflict increase following the birth of a bub and this also contributes to an increased level of paternal postnatal depression (see our recent blog on resentment in the postnatal period).
- Partner’s depression: this is a really important one. Evidence suggests that up to half of men with depressed partners also experience symptoms of depression.
- Sleep deprivation: lack of sleep plays a critical role in the experience of depression and anxiety for new mums and dads.
- Birth trauma: the experience of a traumatic birth is a risk factor for postnatal depression in Mums, but it can have a significant impact on Dads too (although is much less recognised). Dads’ can experience symptoms of PTSD following a traumatic birth. This is often missed or minimised but it can have a detrimental impact on their mental health in the postnatal period.
The changes a Dad experiences through the perinatal period are significant and can lead to mental health difficulties that are similar to those of new Mums. However, there is very little awareness, social discourse, screening, or support offered to new Dads.
New Dads often feel that their feelings are not valid. Research shows that men feel that their experience of birth and new fatherhood is much less important, and comparatively easier than that of a new Mums, so they don’t speak up. In addition, a strong social norm that idealises a solid, stable support to the new Mum, can make it really hard for Dads to speak up. Doing so creates a feeling of letting their partner down – when the truth is that a mentally healthy partner is a better support.
The solution is to spread the word that paternal perinatal depression is an issue, and that men need greater support through this period too. We should all check in with new Dads to see how they’re coping and offering support if they are struggling. Just letting them know that postnatal depression can impact Dads too can be a big help.
The good news is that we know a lot about postnatal depression and can help Dads through this challenging period. New Dads, like new Mums, can overcome perinatal depression. A combination of lifestyle factors such as exercise, sleep, and social support, combined with professional help in the form of therapeutic interventions and (in some cases) medication, can help get the Dad back in good health so they can be their best Dad.
Written by Pip Johnson, Psychologist