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POSTNATAL DEPRESSION IN MEN

Despite figures’ showing that roughly as many fathers experience postnatal depression as women (around one in ten)[1], medical bodies still show it very little acknowledgment, let alone helpful advice.

Why is that?  Surely in an age when suicide from depression is known to be the biggest killer of men under the age of fifty there should be more discussion about it?

Let’s start one, then.

THE DIFFICULTY OF SPOTTING POSTNATAL DEPRESSION

Even diagnosing postnatal depression in women is notoriously tricky.  New mothers are thrown into a whirlwind of changing emotions and hormones in the first eighteen months of their child’s life and most assume that these, coupled with sleep deprivation, are just normal, transient mood changers.

When a low, postnatal mood persists, however, it can have a debilitating effect on a mother’s mental state.  At that point, if she seeks medical help, she may be diagnosed with postnatal, or ‘postpartum’, depression:  a very real illness that demands proper treatment.

Only fairly recently have fathers been ‘allowed’ to claim this low mood after a baby’s birth, too.  New fathers are thrown into a whirlwind of changing emotions and, indeed, hormones too, though.  So why has it taken society so long to accept that men can suffer postnatal depression as well as women?

“GROW A PAIR, MAN!”

That’s the kind of response society has thrown at depressed dads until now.  It’s the kind of response we’ve flung at ourselves in the first eighteen months of paternity, too.

Pete, a father of two from Manchester, says:

“When my first son was born, my wife had to have a forceps delivery after she’d been in labour for fifteen hours.  The baby was showing signs of stress and suddenly everything in the labour ward went into fast forward.  I remember feeling at a loss – completely useless and desperate for my wife and baby.  Even though the birth was okay after that, I had nightmares about it for months afterwards and the sense of inadequacy didn’t get any better.

“What if I lost my job?  How could I cope with a baby and work while she was recovering from the birth?  What did I know about being a dad?  I felt as though I was hanging onto a cliff’s edge by my fingernails for months.  Night after night, we both lay awake and I felt permanently lost, fragile and useless.  The fear was indescribable, and it seemed as though it would just never let up.  I couldn’t own up to anyone about it because I should have been the strong one, right?  I mean, it’s not like I actually went through the pregnancy and birth.  It took me a long time to actually get that ‘bond’ with my son that seems to happen so naturally with other fathers.”

In fact, it is thought now that fathers do go through hormonal changes, too.  Couple that with the trauma of witnessing your partner going through a potentially life-threatening situation and you have very strong grounds for situational depression, if not postnatal depression.

In the old days, fathers were expected to stay out of the labour room entirely and so they rarely witnessed the trauma of a difficult birth.  Now that many men wish to be present for their child’s birth, more of us testify to the after-effects of the event.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN POSTNATALLY DEPRESSED MOTHERS AND FATHERS

Postnatal depression can start at anytime in the first eighteen months after birth.  Although the feelings and emotions experienced by new mothers and fathers may be very similar, the symptoms are different.  That’s why they’re so hard to spot in men:  we don’t show the same signs of postnatal depression as our partners and, moreover, society doesn’t expect us to show any at all.

New mothers may experience:

  • Low mood
  • Loss of pleasure in hobbies, friendships and normal pastimes
  • A sense of worthlessness and low self-esteem
  • Suicidal thoughts

New fathers may experience all of the above and yet show it very differently.  We’re not well-known for our ability to engage with our emotions and discuss them.  Without that release, we may show our depression through symptoms such as:

  • Anger
  • Working too much
  • Drinking or gambling too impulsively
  • Driving too fast, exercising too much or putting ourselves at risk
  • Leaving the family home

If you know a new dad who is showing a couple or more of these behaviours, talk to him or gently suggest that he finds someone he can talk to about what he’s feeling.  Perhaps you recognise them in yourself; you know what to do.

THE MOST COMMON POSTNATAL DEPRESSION THREAT

Along with the trauma of birth and fluctuating hormones comes a tried and tested humdinger.  This will affect virtually every new father to a greater or lesser extent and can trigger depression.

It’s inescapable, really.  Babies need feeding, burping, changing and cuddling every few hours around the clock.  Even if you and your partner are taking your new parenting roles in turn, the chances are you won’t be able to sleep in between your shifts during the night.  Before you know it, it’s the chilly dawn and time to get back to work.

The bad news is that prolonged sleep deprivation is the most common cause of depression as it actually provokes neurological changes in your brain.  Your very thought patterns change over time and in this instance, not for the better.

The good news is that you can anticipate this and help yourself in part by tweaking your lifestyle:

  • Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic drinks before bedtime, shut your laptop and help your brain and body prepare for sleep as much as possible.
  • Get some moderate exercise every day.
  • Enlist the help of a babysitter for at least one night of the week – even if you are at home – to allow you and your partner a stretch of several hours’ sleep.

DEPRESSION PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE

Depression of any kind needs treatment as much as other illnesses.  The best way to deal with postnatal depression, though, is to prevent it.

More couples now seek therapy before their little bundle of joy arrives – “Pre-birth Therapy” – as it helps them to build some defenses into their lives before the major changes come.  Speak to your GP or search online for therapists and support groups for new parents, even if you’re expecting a second, third or fourth child.  You’ll learn how to put things into place that will help you to cope with stress, such as budgeting for a new family, changing your diet to help your sleep patterns and how to talk openly and caringly with each other.

This is, after all, a time that you want to reflect on happily as you grow older together:  these really can be the best years of your life.

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320528817_Symptoms_of_depression_in_Swedish_fathers_in_the_postnatal_period_and_development_of_a_screening_tool

 

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