Many people think only mums can get post-natal depression and anxiety. In a post to mark Perinatal Awareness Week, Alan Law sets the record straight and explains how to recognise the signs – in yourself, or the new dad in your life.
We don’t talk about the fact that dads get post-natal depression too. We just don’t. But we need to. Here Alan Law shares with us what he’s found – it’s brave and bold. And we’re grateful to him. We ask that you talk about this. Share it with the dads in your life. We need to discuss this – it could save a life. Thank you Alan for this important mahi. – Emily Writes, The Spinoff Parents editor
About a month ago I wrote a blog post for Hashtag Psychology about post-natal depression in dads. As a researcher, I was wondering about the validity of claims made in the media about what causes it; I was particularly sceptical about some claims about hormones. As a parent, I can relate to the distress people experience after their lives are changed by the impending, and then suddenly real, arrival of a dependent child. Once I started sifting through the resources available online, I was surprised at two things. Firstly, paternal post-natal depression is far more common than I expected. Secondly, given how common it really is, there’s very little good information out there.
Post-natal depression is a rare thing in the world of disorders because, unlike the majority of conditions we might hear about, the trigger is so obvious that it’s included in the name – so obvious and intuitive that perhaps I shouldn’t call it a disorder. I think we’re quite comfortable with the idea that distress can occur with the trauma of giving birth and the massive life changes that motherhood brings. But the websites that deal with this reflect a general ignorance of how the partners of mothers can be affected. It took days of research before I found a New Zealand website that competently addressed paternal post-natal depression. Not only did most of the major mental health and parenting websites fail to mention that men might suffer at all, even when it was acknowledged, I found myself led to a defunct forum for dads and an unhelpful site with an empty list of support groups for men. Heaven forbid you’re looking for support as the female partner of a mother.
If around 10% of mothers suffer from postnatal depression, that’s a lot of families affected, and it makes sense to screen for it, as Plunket do. But it is estimated that up to 26% of fathers go through it, with different symptoms from women. Those symptoms are seldom mentioned, so here is a list of manifestations from Lloyd Philpott, a specialist in this area:
- Anger attacks
- Affective rigidity (failure to express emotions)
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Unhealthy sexual relationships or infidelity
- Reckless behaviour, such as unsafe driving
- Abusive behaviour
- Escapist behaviour, such as spending excessive time watching television, on the internet or at work
When I found this, I felt a sense of déjà vu, partly because I’ve been through some of it myself and seen it almost destroy friends’ relationships. But it’s also a list of stereotypically male problem behaviours intimately tied to ideas of masculinity. I’ve seen a similar list before in Joe Ehrmann’s TedX Baltimore talk, which argues that covert depression, substance abuse and violence are outcomes of the way we bring up boys. Similarly, Tony Porter’s Ted talk focuses on the ‘man box’ into which we socialise boys by telling them to adopt a protector role towards women and children, telling them to suppress emotion and learn not to cry, to be decisive and not seek help. The focus of these talks was on demonstrating how toxic masculinity leads to violence towards women, but clearly the consequences are also bad for men themselves if the same script is activated when a child is born. Under these conditions, the stakes for the family are high – on one hand, dads spending more time with their kids has all kinds of positive outcomes for the family, and on the other hand, when dads get depressed, even if they stay functional, there’s an increase in negative outcomes for their kids. Continuing to ignore or trivialise men’s emotions doesn’t seem like a good idea for anyone.
Fathers can experience powerful and difficult emotions while feeling isolated, worthless when they can’t find their place in the new relationship and responsibilities structure, and overwhelmed with responsibility when they can. They may not have anyone to talk to about it, even if they can overcome the expectation that they solve it themselves. In my own case, as fatherhood approached, I was told many times over that I needed to provide emotional support for my children’s mother but was seldom advised to ensure that I had support for myself. I was even sent a whole book on how to make a new mother happy. So when I felt uncomfortably alone in the middle of the night after 3am bottle feedings that my wife couldn’t wake for, I found comfort in night time Xbox games and beer. I suppose I was looking to lose myself and stop the frustration from turning into anger or sadness. Sometimes when my baby boy cried I would just let him cry, staring through him so he would only know me as blank-faced rather than mad or tearful. For me, the worst of it faded once my wife and I realised we needed to talk more about how hard we were finding parenthood.
It seems quite apparent that this is precisely what new dads need: we don’t need a biological explanation for new fathers’ distress, and I couldn’t find any genuine evidence that hormonal changes in men are a valid explanation. But we do need men to talk to each other, to their partners, to anyone, really. As far as I can see in Auckland, only one support group is specifically prepared to deal with men’s emotions as new dads. If you have experiences you’re interested in sharing, have a look at my new post at Hashtag Psychology and get in touch – I’d love to hear from you. The conversation is worth it if it helps men see how easily covert anxiety and frustration can turn to depression, anger and violence.
As common as paternal post-natal depression is, I think we can do a lot to prevent it. Not only do we need to talk more about men’s feelings, we need to help our sons be better at it than we are. Sometimes I catch myself trying not to have feelings in front of my little toddler, or trying to get him to control his naturally exaggerated sensitivity. While I write this, he’s clapping along to “if you’re happy and you know it“. We need to work on what to do if you’re not happy, and you know it.
If you or someone you know is a frustrated dad looking for advice and support, I would recommend the Huggies website, which is balanced and quite helpful. Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa have relaunched their website with a lot of really good info on paternal post-natal depression, some personal stories and information about Perinatal Awareness Week, which started on Monday.
If you are seeking advice or support with mental health issues of any kind, please use the following contacts as supplied by the Mental Health Foundation:
Depression helpline: Freephone 0800 111 757
Healthline: 0800 611 116. (available 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone)
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Lifeline: 0800 543 35
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 04 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions).
Alan Law is a PhD Fellow with publications on mental health stigma, lifespan psychology, wisdom and happiness. After 18 years teaching in Europe, he is now a full-time researcher and dad, and a part-time writer and teacher. You can follow some of his academic work through Twitter, ResearchGate, Linkedin and see some of his other writing at Hashtag Psychology (Twitter @hashtagpsych).
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