Some fathers who have witnessed traumatic births have been left so mentally scarred by the experience that they have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Shocked by the reality, research psychology student Christian Inglis launched his own research to help lift the veil of secrecy on the difficulties fathers face when welcoming their newly born into the world. In doing so he has taken out a prestigious ‘Posters in Parliament’ award.
The competition judges chose Christian’s work from the 33 finalists’ posters on display at the exhibition.
It mirrors similar events overseas – ‘Posters on the Hill’ in the US Congress and ‘Posters in Parliament’ in the UK – designed to raise the profile of research.
Christian, who hopes to get funding to continue his research, says a lot of work needs to be done to understand the effects of traumatic childbirth on the mental health of fathers.
“I was surprised to find that only seven other research papers worldwide had been published on the topic,” he said.
“My research found that 11.5 per cent of fathers experience clinically significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic childbirth, and almost 20 per cent suffer moderate to extremely severe depression.”
He says fathers are being marginalised, or as one father put it, “sidelined” before, during and after childbirth.
“Because of this they feel unprepared, out of control, don’t know what’s happening during the events of labour, and they suffer in the postpartum because they don’t know how to put on the brave face,” he said.
“They had higher depression, anxiety, stress, symptoms of PTSD, and had lower attachment with their infants than other fathers do.”
Fathers anonymously participated in Christian’s research.
One said he felt out of control.
“Sometimes there are things in life that are way out of our control. They rip our entire lives apart and change it more than we could ever imagine, while all we can do is stand by and watch,” he said.
Another said he felt left in the dark.
“You just had no idea what was going on. You’re just sort of standing on the sidelines watching and trying to understand,” he said.
Assisting new dads
Christian says his team has produced specific recommendations that health providers such as midwives, GPs and obstetricians can use to flag fathers who could potentially suffer mental illness.
“We strongly recommend fathers to attend birthing classes. Communication is key to appraising the childbirth as a positive experience, and so health providers must be communicating well with fathers during all events of the childbirth,” he said.
“They [fathers] are emotionally invested just as much as their partners and the results from this study go to show that men aren’t doing so well when they aren’t communicated to.
“Also, our results suggest affected fathers aren’t attaching well with their infants – this could have massive ramifications for a child’s development socially, emotionally and cognitively.”
Christian says fathers need attention just as mothers do following childbirth.
“Brief interventions or assessments can be delivered at the coalface, so at the hospital with mum, during postnatal visits, or with the midwife or a GP,” he said.
“Women receive some wonderful care in the postpartum, and we strongly suggest fathers are asked how they’re coping too. Childbirth trauma is in the eye of the beholder.”