Supporting New Fathers: Men’s Postpartum Depression

Here are a few ways you can support new fathers through postpartum depression.

The birth of a child is a joyous occasion for new parents, bringing home your bundle of joy can be an exciting and rewarding experience for both parents. The adjustment period is harsh on almost everyone with new schedules, sleepless nights, stress, anxiety, financial issues and just getting used to life with a little one. For most parents, this time is rough emotionally, but for a few, the ability to cope can be further hindered by depression. Postpartum depression in women is well known and the signs and symptoms are watched for by doctors and family, but many are not aware that fathers can suffer from postpartum depression too.

Rates of men who are diagnosed with postpartum depression aren’t tracked as well as rates of women who are, but the estimate is that about 1 in 4 men will be diagnosed. However, the problem of men’s postpartum depression may be much more common due to underreporting and many men not getting diagnosed or treated due to cultural expectations and lack of awareness.

The same factors that contribute to women’s postpartum depression are present in a new dad’s life as well, stress, anxiety, sleepless nights, routine changes, and even hormonal fluctuations. Scientists have noticed that men’s hormones start to fluctuate when their partner is pregnant and those changes become more severe in the postpartum era, but the jury is still out on why it happens. Men’s testosterone levels drop, their estrogen levels rise and the stress hormone cortisol is present and the levels rise in the postpartum period. This perfect storm of changes can cause a dad to develop postpartum depression and it can also make any depression he was struggling with before to become worse.

Many dads do not notice the changes early on, and may just feel like they are tired or stressed and ignore the changes until things get very serious. The cultural expectation for men not to have strong emotions and to remain stoic during times of trial can lead men to try to “tough it out” even though that is not a winning strategy. Having postpartum depression isn’t a sign of weakness nor does it mean that a dad is not a good father, however, he may feel these things because society is actively promoting them. When boys are raised with the attitude that “boys don’t cry” they become anxious and ashamed when completely natural and normal emotions surface and may attempt to push down any uncomfortable feelings and remain soldiering on no matter how harmful it is to them and to their ability to bond with their child. It is very important to be supportive and listen without judging and to throw out any preconceived biases you may have about how men must behave or express emotions.

Risk factors:

  • Personal or family history of depression
  • Difficulty trying to manage a balance between career and family
  • Financial changes
  • Lack of sleep
  • Feeling left out of the bonding experience between mother and child
  • Stressful labor and delivery, especially if the mother’s or baby’s life were at risk
  • Lack of social or emotional support
  • Growing up in a family that strictly adheres to gender roles
  • Changes in the relationship between the father and the baby’s mother
  • Changes in hormone levels
  • Relationship stress with the extended family
  • Changes to friendships
  • Increased expectations but decreased time to meet them

If the father is experiencing one or more of the things on the list of risks, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on them to make sure they aren’t showing symptoms of depression and to talk with them if you are worried that they might be. The classic symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, loss of interest in hobbies or life in general, significant weight loss or gain, feeling run down all the time, anxiety, feeling restless, difficulty making decisions, guilt, feeling worthless or inadequate and thoughts of death or suicide. While many of these symptoms may affect men and women the same, there are other symptoms that are more common in men.

Symptoms of postpartum depression in men:

  • Increased conflict with others
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling out of control
  • Violent outbursts
  • Trying to self medicate with drugs and alcohol
  • Increased physical symptoms such as pain or nausea
  • Reckless behavior
  • Increased impulsivity
  • Preoccupation with worries about performing well at work and at home
  • Feelings of conflict between what society deems “manly” and how they really feel

Because there is so much stigma for men getting treatment for mental health, it can feel like an attack when you bring it up. It’s important to have the discussion about postpartum depression as early as possible and to discuss the symptoms. Men may fear that if they are diagnosed that they will lose access or rights to their child, and it is important to reassure them that getting treatment for mental health or emotional needs is not a sign of weakness and it does not make them a less capable parent. It is important to get treatment as soon as possible as it can take weeks for it to start working and the longer your partner is depressed the more it will affect their relationships at home and at work.

Sometimes treatment can be a simple as making accommodations for time for recovery, but often therapy and medication can be required. It is important to speak to a doctor openly about everything to make sure that the situation is fully understood and a treatment plan can be agreed upon. Depression is difficult to treat for some and more than one treatment plan may need to be tried until the right one is found. Keeping a journal of symptoms and feelings can really be helpful to inform the doctor about progress, side effects, and the current state of affairs.

Men who are struggling with the transition into fatherhood have often been overlooked or ignored because of all of the other things going on when a baby is brought home and have had to suffer in silence, but it is time to really make strides at changing that. Men are human beings with thoughts and feelings and their brains and bodies respond to stress in many of the same ways that women’s do, and it is important to recognize that postpartum depression is a medical issue and may need medical intervention.