Parenting charity NCT wants to raise awareness of perinatal depression among fathers and encourage men to speak out and get help
Around two in five of new fathers are concerned about their mental health, according to a survey, which highlights that it is not just mothers whose wellbeing is at risk after having a child.
Parenting charity NCT, which carried out the research, said extra responsibilities, changes in relationships and lifestyle, and the inevitable sleep deprivation are among the factors that can impact on men’s mental health.
It said the results, published on Thursday ahead of Father’s Day, illustrate the importance of men being encouraged to speak up about their experiences.
NCT psychologist Dr Abigail Easter said: “Awareness of perinatal depression among fathers unfortunately remains low. Postnatal depression is typically associated with mothers and often fathers are forgotten during this important time, with almost no specific support available to men.
“Sadly, stigma around mental health still exists and many men may find it difficult to confide in others about how they are feeling. It may be particularly difficult for dads to open up following the birth of their baby when there are additional expectations on new fathers.”
Easter said that mothers were given more opportunities to seek help and there were more services available to them. So, even when some dads were willing to talk about their depression, they might not know where to get help.
Just as men are advised at antenatal classes to keep an eye on their partner’s mental health during and after pregnancy, women should be urged to do the same, said Easter.
“Mums should look out for warning signs such as their partners feeling unable to cope, not sleeping or crying,” she said. “If women think their partners are struggling, then opening up a dialogue is often the first step to helping men access appropriate support.”
NCT invited men and women to complete online questionnaires during their baby’s first year (6-9 months), and a year later (18-21 months). Of the 296 first-time fathers who responded to the first survey, 38% said they were concerned about their mental health.
Although the number of respondents was relatively small, it chimes with previous research.
A 2010 study funded by the Medical Research Council found that by the time their first child is 12, 21% of fathers have had at least one episode of depression, with the highest risk being in the child’s first year.
An Oxford University study published last month, which followed 15 first-time fathers, found that five showed signs of mild to moderate depression two weeks after their child’s birth, and one showed symptoms of moderately severe depression at six months.
Easter said it was possible that the burden of being a modern dad was affecting men’s mental health as well as the traditional pressures, such as increased financial responsibility, although there was insufficient research to state this with any certainty. Another worry for new fathers is concern about their partner’s mental health with almost three quarters (73%) of first-time dads who completed the NCT survey identifying this as a worry for them.
Mark Williams, founder of Dads Matter UK, an organisation offering education and support for dads with perinatal mental health issues, which will launch on Sunday, said:
“There are all sorts of reasons why men suffer mental health problems after the birth of a child. Some suffer from postnatal depression themselves whilst others get downcast because their partners have mental health troubles. I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing my wife’s distressing birth.”
NCT urges new parents who experience persistent feelings of anxiety or low moods to seek help from their GP. It also advises sharing feelings with someone you trust, taking time for yourself by maintaining involvement in hobbies, exercise, or social activities. The charity says exercising every day, even if it is a walk with the buggy, can have a positive effect on mood and wellbeing.
When Adam Davies and his wife Hayle had their first child, Nia, in May 2009, the problems started almost immediately.
“As soon as my wife and daughter came home, that changed things significantly,” said the 40-year-old father of two. “My daughter had really bad colic – it kept her screaming constantly when she was awake. She would eventually wear herself out from crying and go to sleep. That was the only way it stopped.
“I found myself not wanting to spend time with my daughter so I’d find reasons to stay late at work or go to work early. I also have a lot of interests so I would spend time pursuing them.”
He said he felt he was a “bad dad”, failing to live up to the ideal presented in the media.
Life became so unbearable for the account manager from Wiltshire that at one point he told his wife: “If I had anywhere else to go, I would do it [go there] now.” But it was his wife who eventually provided him with the way out of his depression after six to nine months of “hell”.
“She recognised the substantive things in my behaviour,” he said. “She found an article in a newspaper about a father who had gone through the exact same things I had gone through. She didn’t tell me to read it, she just left it somewhere. The headline was enough to catch my eye and draw me in. It brought tears to my eyes as I suddenly realised I wasn’t the only one going through it. I was able to talk to Hayley about it and go through it, which I hadn’t before.”
He describes family life now as great and hopes other men might benefit from hearing his story as he did from reading the article about another father. Davies said it is right that the focus is on women, given what they go through, but men should not be forgotten. “All the posters are aimed at women, about post-natal depression or ‘breast is best’,” he said. “Even if there was one A5 poster alongside them for fathers, it would make a difference.”