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Dads & Mental Health: Postpartum Depression in Men

21st June is International Father's Mental Health Day - a day dedicated to highlighting postpartum depression in new dads following the birth of a child.

Currently, the NHS can only formally diagnose somebody with a perinatal mental health condition if you are pregnant or have given birth to a child in the last year. 

However, research shows that 10% of new dads experience paternal postpartum depression, with evidence already showing that the Covid-19 pandemic has made these figures worse. If universal screening were in place, it's estimated that these figures would be even higher.

Reports have also shown that up to 38% of new dads are worried about their mental health, and up to 20% felt totally isolated during the first year of fatherhood.

Founded by paternal postpartum depression survivor and fatherhood mental health expert Mark Williams, IFMHD aims to take a whole-family, father-inclusive approach to shedding light on these issues and by highlighting resources for new dads and their partners.

Mamamade caught up with Mark to discuss paternal mental health, how partners can help support new dads who are struggling and what needs to be done to drive change.

How did International Father's Mental Health Day start?

I started from a personal experience in 2004 after witnessing a traumatic birth and my wife going through severe postnatal depression while in crisis teams.

It had a huge impact on my own mental health but suffered in silence for years after the postnatal period. It was after having a breakdown and speaking to another father who had struggles realised that there was no one was talking about fathers mental health back in 2011.

The reason for the day is global concern and our aim is for The World Health Organisation to recognise paternal mental health like it does for maternal mental health.

You've been campaigning for father's mental health for over 10 years now - have you seen any changes during this time?

Yes for sure - I have been involved in policy changes and awareness has grown in recent years. I'm all about parents and never about taking the attention away from the mother. Supporting all new parents for their mental health has far better outcomes for the whole family and the development of the child. Due to no mention in NICE Guidelines Pathways of care for fathers (CG192) we are seeing some trusts making their own pathways to get the right support for fathers as well.

I campaigned for Welsh Government to include fathers in the mental health plan and for NHS england to include fathers in the new long-term plan.

What do you feel are the barriers or challenges men face when it comes to opening up about their mental health?

Stigma and lack of education around paternal mental health, also that all the thoughts and fears mums can experience from fathers of course can as well. The biggest killer in men under 50 is suicide and the risk of this is much higher during the perinatal period. There is currently no screening or support available specifically for partners, so many end up receiving only generic help.

I know men do talk in a safe place and with someone who understands with empathy what they are experiencing. In my experience once one dad opens up they tend to follow as well in the groups. We need to break down all the myths and explain the quicker the help, the quicker the recovery.

What can partners do to support their male partners who are struggling with their mental health following the birth of a child?

Look out for behaviour changes in their partners during the perinatal period and encourage skin-to skin which is good for the baby and of course the father too. Ask them how they are feeling and family members to encourage fathers and include them.

Some of the symotions can be fear, confusion, helplessness, withdrawal from the family, frustration, insomnia, using negative coping skills, anger and of course physical symptoms as well.

We must remember that dads struggle to bond and testosterone lowers during fatherhood as well. Fathers with a past history of anxiety, depression and trauma before being a father may be at increased risk as well. PTSD is an anxiety disorder ever witnessing or going through life in danger event, and there is nothing worse than thinking your wife and baby is going to die like I had experienced.

What still needs to be done in the UK to help fathers who are struggling with their mental health?

I would like to see an all-party agenda at Westminster which I have been pushing for years. As mentioned, The World Health Organisation has to look at this more seriously and health professionals should have information on the father.

We should be screening all new parents for their mental health and ask them how their experience at the birth was for them. We need a big cultural shift in maternity services as fathers are now today often home when they're partners are the chief income earners.

If you know of a man who may be a friend, family member of colleague, I urge you to ask him just 4 simple words - "how are you, dad?"

Watch Mark's TED talk on The Importance of New Father's Mental Health.

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