What is paternal postnatal depression? What causes it and what are the symptoms? Let’s bring this lesser-known condition out of the shadows.

We’re discussing postnatal depression much more now than we ever did — that can only be a good thing. The more we discuss our mental health and share our struggles as new parents, the more we normalise the conversation. For so many people struggling with postnatal depression, the worst thing can be the sense of isolation and hopelessness — the feeling that we have nobody to talk to and that by discussing such topics, we’d feel like a burden. 

Things are getting better every day — but we still have a long way to go. This is why I’m so eager to discuss issues such as panic attacks during pregnancy, separation anxiety and postnatal depression. We need to keep talking. There is one area, though, that I feel gets precious little focus, and that’s paternal postnatal depression. 

Most of us have heard of postnatal depression in mothers, but I’d be willing to bet hardly any of us have heard of paternal postnatal depression. While we should, of course, ensure every single woman who needs help is supported, we can’t forget that new fathers also need help. No matter how prepared any of us think we are, having a child can be a shock to the system and a lot to take on. New parents may have money worries to tackle, new responsibilities to navigate, a change in family dynamics — all on top of sleep deprivation. And many dads may not feel able to speak up, given the reality that their partner has just delivered an eight-pound baby and is dealing with broken sleep and midnight feeds.

Here is what the experts say about paternal postpartum depression — what causes it, the symptoms, the stigma and how they can ask for help.

Table of Contents

  • What is Paternal Postnatal Depression?
  • How Common is Paternal Postnatal Depression?
  • The Stigma of Postnatal Depression in Men
  • Risk Factors to Look Out For
  • Symptoms of Paternal Postnatal Depression
  • This Condition Has Far-Reaching Effects
  • Getting Help

What is Paternal Postnatal Depression?

According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, whether you’re discussing men or women, postpartum depression is defined as “an episode of major depressive disorder (MDD) occurring soon after the birth of a child”. The peak time for postnatal depression in men is between three and six months after the birth of a baby.

Despite the fact that it’s rarely discussed, it’s a fairly common condition. It’s also one that often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms are often simply mistaken for everyday stresses of having a newborn.

How Common is Paternal Postnatal Depression?

Given that it is so under-diagnosed, it’s impossible to say exactly how common this condition is. One source claims that 1 out of every ten men will suffer from postnatal depression, while Postpartum Men claims that it can be as common as one in four fathers who are affected.

The Stigma of Postnatal Depression in Men

Let’s be honest, a fair few people will likely roll their eyes at the idea of paternal postnatal depression. After all, the woman has had to do the majority of the work. They’ve had to grow a baby from a fetus. They’ve had to drastically change their life and behaviour for nine months or more and it all culminates in a massive, agonising event that no amount of breathing or positive thinking can really prepare you for. 

The thing is, men are human beings too — and while they have technically had the same amount of time to acclimatise to the idea of having a baby, it’s not quite the same. For many, the reality might only really hit home when the baby is in their arms. And it can be a shock to the system.

We should also remember that we have this preconceived notion of what a man ‘should be’. Tough, resilient, stoic — so when a man starts to feel scared, depressed or anxious, they might not feel as inclined, or able, to ask for help.

And in many ways, the stigma men feel when they are suffering from postnatal depression may feel much like the stigma and guilt we feel — we have this gorgeous new baby, one we wanted — why aren’t I happy?

Encouraging discussion around this topic helps to alleviate the stigma and misconception that mental struggles are a sign of weakness. They’re not — and it’s not ‘unmanly’ to address them. You’re actively taking charge of your life and wellbeing.

Risk Factors to Look Out For

So why is it that some men struggle with postnatal depression, while others don’t? There are certain risk factors:

  1. Paternal postnatal depression has a high comorbidity with maternal postnatal depression. This means that if maternal postnatal depression is present, postnatal depression in men is more likely.
  2. Similarly, a father is more likely to suffer postnatal depression if he has a history of depression.
  3. A  history of anxiety disorder.
  4. Dads under the age of 25 are more likely to experience postnatal depression.
  5. Significant financial pressures.
  6. Drug or alcohol abuse.
  7. Not having a relationship with the child’s mother.
  8. Sleeping or crying issues (such as colic).
  9. A lack of support.
  10. Hormonal changes.

Symptoms of Paternal Postnatal Depression

What symptoms should you be looking out for? While there is no established criteria for postnatal depression in men, we know it can present itself in a number of ways:

  • Withdrawal from family life, work and social situations
  • Insomnia
  • Changes in appetite and weight, indigestion, constipation, etc
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • Fear, confusion and indecisiveness 
  • Irritability, frustration, cynicism and anger
  • Violence, sometimes directed at a partner
  • Marital conflict
  • Increased drug and alcohol use
  • Poor parenting behaviours, or other risky behaviours.
  • Extramarital affairs
  • Lack of interest in activities that once brought them joy
  • Shortness of breath and heart palpitations

This Condition Has Far-Reaching Effects

Anyone suffering with postnatal depression shouldn’t struggle alone. Getting help is the most important thing for not only you, but for your whole family. The saddening reality is that paternal postnatal depression has far-reaching effects, including emotional and behavioural problems in children. Postnatal depression in men can result in less engagement between father and child, fewer stories read, less quality time and, ultimately, less of a bond. There’s also evidence to suggest that such depression can result in developmental delay in children.

The situation could also escalate and cause irreparable harm to your relationship. It’s never too late to turn things around, but the sooner you ask for help, the better for you, your mental health and your family.

Getting Help

If you’re in the UK, be sure to contact your GP if you have concerns, or call 111. You can also use the depression screening tool on the NHS Choices website.

There are depression support groups out there that can make you feel less alone and more understood, or you might find it useful to attend an antenatal course to acclimatise to parenthood. Turn to your family and friends, and speak to your doctor, who will be able to prescribe medication (as appropriate) and recommend therapy, whether it’s cognitive behavioural therapy or a talking therapy. Asking for help isn’t easy for everyone. But if you think of it as the first step of moving on and getting yourself the help you deserve, it might encourage you to speak up and get you on the road to feeling better.

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