Yes, New Dads Get Post-Natal Depression, Too. Here’s How To Deal With It

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Yes, New Dads Get Post-Natal Depression, Too. Here’s How To Deal With It

Words by Dr Bronwyn Leigh

17 June 2020

MR PORTER’s Health In Mind is run in partnership with Movember, a charity and awareness campaign aiming to change the face of men’s health through prostate cancer research, mental health support and suicide prevention. For Father’s Day, we asked them to help us explore a timely issue, and one that has not received nearly enough attention in the past: post-natal depression in men.

Movember put us in touch with Dr Bronwyn Leigh, a clinical psychologist and Director of the Centre for Perinatal Psychology, a national network of perinatal psychologists covering more than 60 locations around Australia. Dr Leigh is co-author of Towards Parenthood, a self-help workbook supporting soon-to-be and new parents prepare for the emotional changes and challenges of becoming a parent.

A sustained area of interest for Dr Leigh is her work with fathers. An international committee member and campaigner for International Fathers’ Mental Health Day, she is also a subject matter expert and clinical advisor to Movember. Below, Dr Leigh shines a light on mental health matters for expectant and new fathers.

While the social and clinical focus for many years has been on expecting and new mothers, we now know that depression and anxiety also occur in men when transitioning into fatherhood. Around one in 20 men will experience depression and anxiety during pregnancy, while as many as one in 10 fathers will suffer following the birth of their baby.

Although men cannot expect the same hormonal fluctuations that women experience during the perinatal period – that’s the time immediately before and after birth – becoming a father can still be a bewildering experience. Along with an increased pressure of having to provide financial support, new fathers often feel guilt about returning to work, while also suffering from a lack of sleep, a loss of leisure time and insufficient emotional support from friends.

Paternal Perinatal Depression and Anxiety (PPNDA) is less acknowledged than maternal mental health issues for a number of reasons. Primarily, the dominant view of a new dad’s role as “protector and provider” leaves little space for vulnerability. New dads are supposed to know what to do, to be capable and strong, to be “the rock” of the family. Experiences of anxiety or depression can go against these cultural expectations. As a result, men can feel ashamed, and shame leads to a reticence to seek help, even when distressed. 

Perinatal depression and anxiety occur across the community and can happen to expecting and new dads of all ages, from all backgrounds and walks of life. It can have a profound effect not only on him, but also his family, which is why it’s so important that new fathers know how to recognise and treat it. Here’s how.

01. Recognise the signs

There are plenty of signs and symptoms for depression and anxiety, ranging from mood swings to more physical symptoms. You might feel irritable, panicky, overwhelmed or anxious; your sleeping and eating habits might change; you might find yourself drinking more or losing interest in sex. Some of these may be experienced as “normal” mood fluctuations in the adjustment to a baby. The key to differentiating between “normal” mood fluctuations and something more serious is firstly the degree of distress you feel, and secondly whether these symptoms impact your ability to function in your daily life. Ask yourself: is your relationship suffering? Are you neglecting yourself – or even your child?

“I love this little fella and I love being a dad, but he’s a ton of work. Even though people talk about the sleep deprivation, going through it is pretty rough. I think that contributed to my struggles. I felt like I wasn’t performing well at work because I was so tired, which stressed me out. Then at home, I was cranky, I couldn’t settle our baby, my wife and I were arguing like we never had before.” – Mark

02. Be honest and seek support

If you identify more than a few of these symptoms lasting more than a couple of weeks, reach out to someone you trust. Speak with someone who has your back and let them know what’s going on: a friend, your partner, family member, work colleague or check in with your GP. If you’re feeling worried or ashamed, remind yourself of the benefits of reaching out. Think of seeking support or professional help as a way of looking after yourself and ultimately your family.

“Before becoming a new dad, I wish someone had approached me and told me that not coping was OK and asking for help was not only helpful, but would help me develop into the father I wanted to be.” – Dave

03. Prioritise the basics

Ensuring that you take proper care of yourself is the simplest and most effective way to tackle the symptoms of PPNDA.

Exercise is an effective adjunct treatment for depression and anxiety – and it’s free. It helps to relieve stress and anxiety, boosts happy brain chemicals and improves sleep. It can be hard to establish a routine if you are currently depressed or anxious and there’s a new baby in the house, but do what you can. In my clinical work with men, I have found that starting small is the way to go. Even five minutes a day, walking around the block. When you can, increase the time to 10 minutes, then 15 minutes. If you feel overwhelmed by the constant presence of a child, go for a walk by yourself – and allow your partner the opportunity to do so, too. Include your baby by popping them in a baby carrier or pram if you want connection. Walk as a family as a way to connect and motivate each other to move.

And remember that the best exercise is the one you actually do. Walk, swim, gym – whatever is possible for you right now, just get moving.

04. Connection matters

It’s important to know you are not alone. Connecting with other dads who have been there really helps. The popular narrative surrounding postnatal depression is defined by the female experience, but men need to have their own conversations about what it’s like to become a dad and to struggle with mental health issues. We know that social connectedness is important for maintaining men’s mental health and for recovery.

“My brother-in-law has been a life-line. He and my sister had two kids before I became a dad. When the wheels started falling off for me, he was the one to put his hand on my shoulder and reassure me. He’d been where I was, struggling to adjust. It meant a lot to know I wasn’t alone.” – Tom

We are social animals. We are designed to raise families among other people within a community of care, where resources and concerns can be shared. Where possible, lean into the village of support you have as a couple: accept practical help from others if it’s offered; ask for practical help if needed.

Stay connected with your partner by keeping lines of communication open and spending small amounts of relaxed time together. Keep connecting with your baby, too. The baby wants and needs your active involvement when you can be calm and present.

“It became really important for my wife and I to prioritise a time to connect every day. After our baby was asleep, we’d take 10 minutes to download our day to each other, even if we were tired. That quick chat every day meant we stayed involved in each other’s world. It allowed us to recognise where the other was at, which meant we could support each other.” – Brad  

05. Give yourself time to adjust

Becoming a dad is a complex process that happens over time, in part by figuring out your new role and adjusting to your new life. Like mothers, fathers bring both their strengths and their struggles to parenthood. You’re not going to figure this one out overnight, so lower your expectations. Go easy on yourself and on your partner. 

In my work, I have found that new dads respond well to the idea that becoming a dad is a mixed experience – not all good, not all bad. Joy and excitement can be mixed with resentment and anxiety; gains are tempered with losses; certainty and optimism can give way to self-doubt. At times we feel courageous, powerful, purposeful, mature, wise; at others we oscillate to the opposite: helpless, weak, small, vulnerable, frightened. This is normal, and part of the fluctuations and uncertainties of life with a baby. Allow those mixed feelings to stir around and coexist. Get used to tolerating them. They are part of the experience.

Explore Centre for Perinatal Psychology Father resources

Listen to Movember’s Dad in Progress Podcast

The MR PORTER Health In Mind Fund is powered by Movember and supports to a range of vital men’s health causes. Find out more about the cause and donate here