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Postnatal Depression… in Men

The mental health of new mothers has come under increasing focus. Yet the psychological pressures of fatherhood are often overlooked. In fact, as Olivia Spencer has discovered, postnatal depression is not confined to women. To coincide with Movember, the author and researcher shares some of the social and psychoanalytic factors at play for new fathers – and explains why male postnatal depression is in danger of passing under even the therapist’s radar.

 

Six years ago I started researching postnatal depression in fathers, an illness viewed as many things – controversial, fabricated, unimportant – and rarely given the publicity it deserves. Today, postnatal depression in fathers is still largely unrecognised, and I wonder how many psychotherapists also remain unaware of this phenomenon.

It is difficult to say exactly how many fathers suffer from depression after the birth of their child – men are generally less likely than women to go to the doctor when they feel depressed. But it is estimated that any number between 4 and 10 per cent of fathers are suffering.

So why is it so under-acknowledged?

In researching my book, Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression in Fathers, I spoke to two psychotherapists about postnatal depression in fathers. Both agreed that it is difficult to diagnose. Adam Jukes, who works exclusively with men, says that men who are depressed tend to exhibit symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness, weight changes, manic episodes, and risky, self-destructive behaviour such as adultery, gambling, or excessive drinking. While some of these symptoms are typical of any new parent, some are seen as typically ‘male’ behaviour – and so the reasons behind these behaviours go unexplored. 

Exclusion and loss 

A theme of exclusion may come up in therapy sessions with new fathers. It can manifest as feelings of loss or rejection, and can also lead to envy, or anger. Almost always, a feeling of loss following the birth of a new baby is a secondary elaboration of a previous loss – something that might have come up before, or something which is brought to the surface when a man becomes a father. 

Entrenched roles and expectations

Social pressures may now lead fathers to feel they should be involved with childcare and housework as much as a mother. One psychotherapist I spoke to on this topic highlighted the pressure to be responsible and to be a provider – both materially and emotionally. This shift in expectation is often not matched by a shift in working patterns, or health services, and can lead to anger if men feel they cannot meet these expectations.

Seeking help

Typically, fathers do not come to therapy with PND as a specific problem. Some men will be fortunate enough to already be involved in therapy. But many new fathers will only seek help when their lives have unravelled so much that they can’t pinpoint where it all started to go wrong.

As a society, we must make an effort to view mothers and fathers as equal, emotional beings – simply asking a new father “How are you?” is a good place to start. Psychotherapists need to be alert to the possibility of postnatal depression in fathers, and the many ways in which men’s mental health may be impacted by new parenthood. After all, wouldn’t getting better at supporting fathers help mothers, and families, too?

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Olivia Spencer

Olivia Spencer is a writer and researcher and the author of Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression in Fathers. She lives in London with her husband and three children and is currently working on her next book. 

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