On average, 1 in 9 women experience depression before, during and after pregnancy, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) .
What may be surprising to some is that dads suffering from depression should also be considered a legitimate health issue, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry. Identifying and treating the symptoms for both mothers and fathers can limit the impact on their children, according to the study.
“It really makes sense that men would be at risk for postpartum depression as well,” said Dr. Elise Herman, a psychiatrist with Novant Health Psychiatric Medicine - Salisbury. “There are some common risk factors and sleep quality changes. Having a child changes a marriage related to finances and time devoted to one another. All of these things going on can put people at risk. If there is strain, especially if they (fathers) are not involved with the children, suicide can also be an additional risk factor to consider.”
The study, which included over 3,500 men living in New Zealand, found that fathers who were stressed or were in poor health showed more symptoms of depression before their baby was born. A higher level of depression symptoms were found in fathers after their child was born. These included men who were no longer in a relationship with the mother, were in poor to fair health at nine months, had a history of depression or were unemployed after nine months.
Researchers concluded that while there is a good deal of information related to mothers and depression, raising awareness about dads who are at a higher risk of depression is the first place to start.
However, stereotypes surrounding depression as a mental health issue may also pose a problem for fathers who need help coping with depression. A similar study of men in the United Kingdom released in January stated that fathers don’t always think heightened psychological distress during pregnancy is a legitimate concern.
“The stigma around depression is made even more evident when it comes to men seeking mental and emotional help,” Herman said. “In many ways, there is still the pressure for the man to be the provider for the family. He starts thinking about the reality that there is going to be another mouth to feed. But for a man to be that great provider, it is important that he is in great health, both physically and mentally. It’s certainly better for the children.”
The study was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made coping and mental health an even tougher issue for millions of Americans.
The question then becomes how to provide an effective method of gauging a man’s level of depression before and after baby’s birth. Herman suggested making depression a topic of conversation for moms-to-be and dads-to-be during every office visit leading up to the birth of their child.
“Conversations need to be happening with the entire family throughout this process,” she said. “For instance, when an expectant mother comes in for her baby check-up, expectant fathers should be offered a similar type of check-up that relates to what the father is and will be experiencing. It’s important to note that depression doesn’t discriminate between men and women. People struggle with various types of life changes. One way to start the conversation with men is by asking how they’re sleeping and what level of stress they currently have.”
In addition to depression, Herman warned that some new dads may suffer headaches, abdominal pain or chest pain because of lack of sleep. Left untreated, these symptoms can impact the entire family.
“Often the way that I frame it is that we know you want to do the best for your family and your kids,” she said. “It’s really important to take care of yourself as well as your family. One way to do this is to take care of your mental health as well. This is a difficult time for anyone. You ask friends for help to fix things such as a car, landscaping or building a shed. This is no different. Making sure that your mental health is tuned up for your growing family makes you a better father, a better husband and a better provider.”
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Herman also stressed the importance of considering depression as a brain illness. Much like how diabetes impacts a certain area of the body, so does depression. Being strong enough to ask for help can make all the difference for dads and those around them.
North Carolina residents who are in emotional distress — or would like guidance on helping someone they know who is struggling with depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug use — can call a free 24-hour helpline at 800-718-3550 to speak with a counselor. The service, provided by Novant Health, connects callers with a master's level therapist who can offer immediate guidance and help determine possible next steps, which could include a further assessment or connection to community resources for those in need.