HealthAgenda

Mental Health

Can men get postnatal depression too?

How to know if you, or a loved one, are suffering from depression or anxiety after becoming a father.

Lucy E. Cousins
September 2017

For Bruce Hasslett, 34, becoming a father didn’t seem real until he was handed his son in the birthing suite. “I didn’t feel connected to the idea of my son when my wife was pregnant – it was all very theoretical for me,” he explains. “Then all of a sudden, there was a little person looking up at me. The elation and the pressure wasn’t real until that moment.”

Hasslett’s first reaction soon after his son’s birth, though, was anxiety. “I was worried about being able to handle being a dad and being responsible for someone else.”

“I remember going to sleep that first night thinking ‘Am I not in love with this child enough?’” he recalls. “I felt society’s pressure to be totally overwhelmed with love. But I still wanted to look up the footy results the first night I was a father and I remember thinking ‘Does this make me a bad dad?’”

Mental health for new dads

Hasslett isn’t alone in feeling the pressure of becoming a new dad. A 2015 study by the Movember Foundation found that 39% of first-time fathers experienced high levels of psychological distress in the first year of becoming a father. And for up to 8% of new dads, that distress could become postnatal depression, according study by the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Although the term 'postnatal depression' is commonly reserved for mothers, psychologist Gemma Cribb has seen that many fathers can also experience significant mood changes related to becoming a parent.

“New dads experience a range of emotions as part of the adjustment process to the lifestyle changes and responsibilities of becoming a new dad,” says Cribb. “These reactions are mostly situational and can include [feeling] overwhelmed, helplessness, stress and anxiety but also joy, closeness and excitement.”

The causes for these emotions could be lack of sleep, lack of time as a couple, pressure to be constantly strong for the family, as well as pressure to give financial and emotional support.

For Hasslett, though, the first few weeks were “OK” as he felt “preconditioned to think it’s going to be tough”. But over the following months he found it increasingly challenging. “It’s just so hard that first year. I remember thinking, ‘When does it get easier?’ No one can tell you that. Who knows if I had postnatal depression?”

Signs of male postnatal depression

In the same Movember Foundation study, 56% of new dads admitted they didn’t seek support from any source. This can make it harder for friends and loved ones to tell if a new dad is feeling stressed or depressed. The Medical Journal of Australia recently reported that a father’s depression and anxiety can have “serious consequences for his family”.

“Men are traditionally socialised not to talk about their feelings as much, or express sadness,” explains Cribb, “and so often they internalise their concerns.”

According to Cribb, signs to watch for include:

  • withdrawing emotionally from your partner and/or family
  • becoming irritable
  • decreasing your engagement in activities such as exercise or socialising.

She says some men turn to alcohol to cope with their feelings, or throw themselves into work as a way of focusing on something they feel they have more control over.

“I didn’t talk to my mates because I felt like I couldn’t talk about my issues,” says Hasslett. “I just needed to get through this. I felt I had to be strong for mum and baby.”

Reaching out

Treatments for depression include psychological consultation and possibly medication like antidepressants. For partners, family and close friends, doing a course at Mental Health First Aid Australia may help to identify and help a loved one affected by postnatal depression.

If you feel like male postnatal depression may be an issue for you, Cribb suggests ways to turn things around:

  1. It’s important to create a strong support network, preferably with other male friends who have been through, or are going through, parenthood.
  2. Try to take care of yourself as much as possible by maintaining exercise and social activities.
  3. Speak openly to your partner about your feelings without blame or criticism and, if you’re both struggling, suggest to your partner that you seek help from a health professional or psychologist trained in this area.
  4. If you need someone to speak to about the options available for new dads, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au. Alternatively, contact The National Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Helpline from 9am-7.30pm AEST/AEDT on 1300 726 306.

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