Fathers can be depressed too

Date Published: 08/04/2022

It’s understandable that new mothers get most of the attention when it comes to mental health. Adjusting to becoming a parent is unique for everyone, though it’s fair to say that most women experience significant physical, emotional and psychological changes during pregnancy and after having their baby.

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Mothers are not the only ones who experience change though. For too long fathers have not been helped as much as they should have been and have missed out on the same level of mental health support.

Depression is not unique to new mothers – up to 1 in 10 fathers develop postnatal depression (PND) in the first year after a new baby. Anxiety is estimated to be at least as common.

Recognising, managing and treating depression and anxiety is similar for both women and men, with a combination of talking therapies and often, medication. Though there are some factors which are unique to men and which need to be acknowledged for treatment to be most effective.

Risks for developing anxiety or depression

Some situations increase the risk of mental health issues for men:
  • Having a history of anxiety/depression or other mental health issue.
  • Having a premature or unwell baby.
  • A history of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Lack of practical or emotional supports.
  • Financial, housing, relationship, work or other stress.
  • Supporting a partner who has PND.

How would I know if I need help?

It can be challenging to separate the exhaustion of having a new baby to care for with the symptoms of depression. Feeling down, having a lack of energy and just not wanting to do anything other than sleep are very normal when there is a young baby in the household. Though at some point it often becomes clear that not every feeling can be explained by sleep deprivation.

Having mainly negative thoughts and being unable to enjoy fatherhood are classic signs of paternal depression.Likewise, feeling a sense of dread about the day (and night), changes in eating and sleep even when there is an opportunity to sleep are typical symptoms. Similarly, having a low mood and feeling ‘flat’, numb or just empty and not being able to think clearly are also common in men who are depressed.

Feeling a lack of connection or ambivalence about the baby can also be a sign of depression. Watching the new mother being absorbed by the baby can be a confronting experience, especially when it’s not replicated. For many men, feeling numb or not having any sense of a relationship towards the baby is a sign that they need help.

Some fathers experience thoughts of harm to themselves, their partner and even their baby. Understandably, these can often cause feelings of distress and even guilt.

If you are experiencing any thoughts of harm, make an immediate appointment to see your GP.

Anxiety symptoms

Anxiety can be displayed by constantly feeling ‘on edge’ and irritable, experiencing bursts of panic and real fear, as well as being worried about their partner and/or the baby for no real reason. Some fathers describe a sense of just not being themselves and find it difficult to describe exactly what they are feeling. This can be made worse in men who may feel under pressure to always be ‘the strong one’ and who have high expectations of themselves to just get on with things.

Anxiety can also be hard to describe, creating such a sense of unease that it’s difficult to put into words. Often there are physical as well as emotional symptoms of anxiety – a racing heart, sweaty palms, gut upsets and a feeling of impending doom are common.

Top 5 tips if you’re feeling depressed or anxious

  1. Take an on-line screening tool which will help to identify if you need help. The final score will give you more understanding about your individual risk.
  2. Speak with your partner about how you’re feeling. Even if they are okay, this doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk of needing mental health support for yourself.
  3. Chat with your friends and other men who are dads and who may have gone through the same experiences. You’ll be surprised about what others choose to share and how keen they’ll be to support you.
  4. Organise to take time off work if possible. Parenting and carer’s leave exist because they are recognised as a need for many new parents. Your manager and human resource department will help you to understand what you’re entitled to.
  5. Avoid taking on too much at the same time.Aim for an easy life and just put extra things on hold for a while. Be kind to yourself and don’t expect too much all at once.

Support for new dads

There is a large range of supports available, some of them are specific to new dads, with other services more general. Make your own decision about what’s right for you. For most fathers, their GP is a good starting point for getting help.

Your GP may, if you need it, make a referral for a Mental Health Treatment Plan with a psychologist or counsellor. Often, a combination of ‘talking therapies and medication is recommended.

SMS4dads is a service specifically for fathers which involves text messages with tips and advice.

PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia.

Black Dog Institute.

Written for babyU by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse.