There is increasing evidence that new fathers can suffer a form of postnatal depression - so why isn't more being done to help them, asks Rob Kemp.
By Rob Kemp
Many men describe the birth of their child as a truly wonderful, life-changing event. But with the new responsibility and devotion, the expense and duty that parenthood brings may also come feelings of anxiety and bouts of exhaustion and stress. Research even points to a form of depression in new fathers, triggered by a combination of hormonal fluctuations and a struggle to cope with the role and its expectations.
“I didn’t recognise the symptoms of postnatal depression (PND) until maybe eight or so months after our twin girls had been born,” explains Bradley, 34, a father from Manchester.
“At the time our eldest son was around four years old, so there we were with three kids, a pair of newborn twins, under a great deal of pressure as parents.”
The charity 4Children estimate that as many as a third of new mums will experience some form of postnatal depression. In its severest form the condition has claimed the lives of mothers and their children.
But when it comes to fathers the true figure is far from clear. Some commentators dismiss the notion that men can even experience depression linked to becoming a father. But an Oxford University study estimates one in 20 new dads suffer with depression following the birth of their child.
Figures from the UK Medical Research Council and University College London claim that 39% of new mothers and 21% of new fathers experience a depressive episode - with the highest risk being in the first year after birth.
“Your mood, your habits even your weight changes,” says Bradley, describing the symptoms of what he believes was PND. “I'd describe it a bit like living in a black hole. I hid away from phone calls, appointments, anniversaries and friends. I became irritable. I was in a bad place.
“My relationship and my family suffered during this period. We all did. I regret that, but honestly, how we were to know? We just got on, thinking 'this is how life is'.”
The condition is examined in greater depth in a new book Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression In Fathers by Olivia Spencer.
Spencer argues that the true extent of the problem – like so many mental health disorders – is greater than we know and that society’s approach to fatherhood needs an overhaul to address it.
“The NHS is focused on the mother and child during pregnancy and birth; It ignores the dad’s mental wellbeing,” says Spencer. “This has a huge impact on the family as a whole.”
Bradley agrees. “After the baby was born the nurse visited for a welfare check. She asked around 30 questions directed at mum - all I was asked was ‘when are you back to work then?’”
Spencer cites research like the 2013 study by anthropologists at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana which reveals how expectant fathers produce less testosterone and cortisol than usual - whilst other studies show that they can experience a spike in prolactin and oestrogen.
Together this ebb and flow of hormones results in heightened sensitivity and weight gain, as well as shrinking a man’s libido and sapping his energy levels.
“PND in men is difficult to diagnose,” explains Spencer. “Of course disturbed sleep, lack of energy, loss of appetite and even feelings of guilt are all part and parcel of caring for a new baby. But they can also be symptoms of depression in both mothers and fathers.”
For Bradley the experience has led him to research the condition further and offer support and advice to dads via twitter (@troublewithtwo). “Even campaigning mothers I have been in contact with for PND awareness cannot believe how little there is in the way of help for men,” he says.
Olivia Spencer, who is currently expecting her third child, believes there should be equality in the support available to new parents. “I’ve just been for an antenatal meeting, they’re during the working day as are the scans and my husband can’t get the time off work. It’s the same with the paltry paternity leave allowance and the postnatal aftercare given – dads are often excluded and their importance devalued.”
Help is at hand for some men through private initiatives such as Daddynatal – antenatal classes for men - and through Fathers Reaching Out, a support group for husbands and partners of PND sufferers. Both were created by fathers who felt they weren’t being catered for by existing ante and postnatal care.
But for most new fathers taking their first steps on the paternity path the message seems to be one of grin and bear it. “Looking back I had a good solid family and friends around me and I kind of just phased back into normal life,” says Bradley. “But what happens to the people that don't get help? Who don't have family? What happens to them?”