Understanding Paternal Mental Health

Thankfully, the understanding of maternal mental health and awareness of postpartum depression in particular, is growing by the day. It is important, however, for us to also remember the mental health of fathers and partners as well.  Many partners can experience psychological distress similar to postpartum depression shortly after the birth of their child, though all too often they, and others around them, question the legitimacy of their experiences. Whether reluctant to seek help, afraid to detract from mom’s needs or uncomfortable with the stigma surrounding paternal mental health, new dads and partners are at risk for struggling in the shadows. 

What constitutes paternal mental health?

While postpartum depression in men and partners is not as widely publicized as often as it is in mothers, it is important to recognize the struggles and need for support of all involved in caring for a new baby. Cases of new partners feeling disconnected from their child have become increasingly prevalent.  For example, in a study published by JAMA Psychiatry, nearly one in 20 new fathers experienced depression following the birth of their child. This disorder has been described as as Paternal Postnatal Depression (PPND). In cases of PPND,  symptoms of anxiety, depression and mood alteration following the birth of a child can be exacerbated by lack of quality sleep, relationship stress, life transition stress, as well as, a personal prior history of depression. 

A study published in BMC Pregnancy Childbirth found that the prevalence of fathers’ depression and anxiety in the perinatal period up to one year following the child’s birth is approximately 5-10%. Additionally, a longitudinal, population-based study conducted on behalf of the Journal of Pediatrics concluded that new fathers show increasing depressive symptom scores during children’s key attachment years of 0-5, leading to an increased risk of adverse emotional and behavioral issues in the affected children. A majority of surveyed new fathers reported a fear of appearing weak,or were unaware that postpartum depression can affect men as well as women, contributing to a lack of treatment and information.  

What are the signs of mental illness to be aware of in new partnering parents?

Paternal mental health is often overlooked or mistaken for fatigue or stress. However, the symptoms of PPND can manifest in signs including anxiety, changes in eating and sleeping routines, extreme fatigue, sadness and a sense of feeling overwhelmed – the same symptoms mothers with postpartum depression experience. While “baby blues” are common for new parents, the Mayo Clinic recommends seeing a licensed therapist or doctor if the symptoms of depression persist longer than two weeks, begin to get worse, make it hard to care for the baby or complete everyday tasks, or if symptoms include thoughts of harming oneself or the baby. If a loved one is observed with these symptoms, it may be time for an honest conversation encouraging them to seek treatment. Assist with childcare and household tasks as much as possible and embolden them to speak with a mental health care provider. 

What does this mean regarding mental health support for fathers and partners?

Unspoken suffering is characteristic of paternal mental health conditions including PPND, an indicator of the increasing need for mental health screenings for new fathers/partners as well as mothers. A UNLV study published in the Journal of Family Issues uncovered six major themes in researching PPND.  These include a need for education in new fathers/partners and the general public, the adherence to gender expectations and repression of feelings leading to a lack of treatment and a widespread experience of neglect by partners that felt forgotten by their significant other, the health care system and society. 

Supported and involved fathers/partners develop a stronger engagement with their children, resulting in the potential for increased cognitive development, stronger social skills and emotional development in the child. As many as one in four new fathers/partners in the United States may experience anxiety and depression for weeks after the birth of a child, a startling and often unnoticed statistic. Mental health treatment resources are needed now more than ever,for mothers, as well as their partners.Proper identification, diagnosis and treatment, both of mom and their partner, allows for happier and healthier parents, which ultimately leads to happier and healthier children.

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Written By: C.Fogarty

Contributing Writer: Dr. Monisha Vasa, MD