TWO LARGE studies published in the US and Australia have shown that up to 10 per cent of fathers experience depression on the arrival of a new baby. This is twice the normal rate of depression for men at other times and similar to the rates of depression for mothers, suggesting men also experience some form of postnatal depression.
The study authors argue for this to be more widely recognised and for specific supports to be offered to new fathers as well as to mothers.
One of the most interesting findings in the studies is that men may experience depression with a cluster of symptoms that is different from those experienced by women. As well as low mood, negative thoughts and self-judgments, these symptoms can include irritability, detachment and emotional withdrawal.
This means that a father who is cut off or disengaged or who is finding it hard to be emotionally expressive with his children may in fact be struggling in the fathering role and feel depressed. Similar to the experience for mothers, a central feature in postnatal depression for fathers is coming to terms with the negative feelings and stresses that come with the adjustment of being a parent.
As a parent, it is normal to feel at times burdened by parenting, that you are “no good at it” or to feel trapped and deskilled in the parenting role. If these feelings are not understood and expressed, they can manifest themselves as depression.
However, whereas many mothers are good at recognising and communicating their distress, this is not the case for many fathers who deal with the problems silently by cutting off and/or by berating themselves for not coping better.
Such depression can put pressure on their relationship with their partners as they are less available, and can reduce their positive interaction with their children.
In addition, many fathers can misinterpret what is going on for them and try to manage things by cutting off further, for example, by over working outside the home (a domain in which they might feel more competent) or worse still by drinking or using other addictions to try to mange their mood.
All these negative ways of coping have negative implications for their relationships with their partners and their children and unfortunately can be the start of long-term problems.
Since the publication of the studies, many commentators are unhappy with using the term postnatal depression for fathers suggesting that it might dilute the understanding for women who are experiencing the condition and who bear the brunt of childbirth and often that of raising young children.
While, of course, many mothers do the lion’s share of early parenting and need support, we can equally recognise the experience of fathers and the stress this brings for them.
Both mothers and fathers need support and understanding if they are to be successful in their parenting.
In addition, there are many advantages in using the term depression for fathers as well as mothers.
Such a term gives fathers a way of understanding what is happening to them and allows them to cope more positively and to be more fully engaged as a parent. Further, it gives couples a way of understanding each other’s perspective. They no longer have to blame the other for being “moody”, “irritable”, “withdrawn” or “labile”.
Instead they can understand this more compassionately in terms of how they are struggling with the challenges of parenting. With a problem named and externalised, it is easier for them to work together to overcome it.
TIPS FOR NEW FATHERS DEALING WITH DEPRESSION
1. Recognise and accept that you will feel negative or low at times about being a parent.
2. Try to find a way of talking about your feelings to your partner or a friend. If this is hard, start by writing how you are feeling in a journal. Begin to recognise and accept your feelings.
3. Focus on positive self-care. Try to make sure you are eating well, getting physical exercise and getting as much sleep as possible.
4. Avoid negative coping strategies such as drinking too much or over working and staying out of the home.
5. Commit fully to the role of parenting. Make sure you have times when you are in charge of the children alone so you can fully assume responsibility.
6. Focus on the enjoyable aspects of parenting. Set aside daily one-to-one times with each of your children when you can have fun relaxed times.
7. Make sure to talk to your partner about what is going on for you, both the good things and the hard things (and the ordinary things). Keep communicating.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, July 2012. John writes in The Irish Newspaper Health+ every Tuesday.