Over the past few decades, doctors, researchers and moms alike have all shed a light on a once darkened corner of the parental experience. Postpartum depression (PPD), an often debilitating condition that impacts at least 10 to 20 percent of new mothers, has slowly begun to move from the shadows and into common conversations in doctor’s offices and even on personal blogs.
Not to be confused with “baby blues”, a much more common occurrence marked by mood swings or feelings of depression caused by mostly hormonal changes immediately after child birth, PPD persists for weeks or months on end, mirroring symptoms of serious clinical depression.
Postpartum depression is not a weakness, but instead an unfortunate complication of childbirth that with prompt treatment and support, can typically be managed. While the actual causes are still unclear, research suggests several factors are at play, including hormonal changes, situational risks and life stresses in general.
While most of the attention has justifiably been on mothers, data shows that up to 10% of fathers also struggle with symptoms of PPD. That number jumps as high as 50% when their partner is also experiencing PPD. Although men often try to live up to cultural expectations of unwavering emotional strength, a wealth of research now confirms that even dads may need a little support during what can be one of the biggest life changes any person can experience.
That research, along with his personal experiences, is what led Mark Williams to help found International Fathers Mental Health Day. The initiative is centered around a whole-family approach with hopes to raise awareness and ensure all parents have the resources they need when they need them.
In 2004, Williams experienced severe depression and suffered in silence for years until eventually having a breakdown. In a post he wrote about the experience, Williams shared how patriarchal stereotypes and societal stigmas kept him from seeking help for far too long. “I hated feeling the way I did and didn’t feel like a man. Wasn’t I supposed to be the strong one?”
His wife Michelle was experiencing PPD at the same time but eventually was able to get the support she needed. Mark, however, internalized most of his emotions and instead withdrew from his loved ones, making it harder for anyone to recognize his cries for help. “I’ve learned that postpartum depression and anxiety can look very different in fathers. For me, I acted totally out of character and wanted to avoid family members. I drank more to cope and was not feeling the overwhelming paternal love that society was telling me I should, ” Mark wrote, adding “ I didn’t think men could have postnatal depression and felt I had to “man up” because all I wanted was for my wife to be happy.”
While his story is all too common, resources and visibility surrounding men’s mental health are few and far between. Dr. Andrew Mayers is one of several medical professionals attempting to break the stigmas surrounding PPD in both men and women.
“We are running three studies at Bournemouth University currently: one focusing on asking dads how the support they got (and need) when dealing with their wife/partner’s (perinatal) mental illness; the second examining support fathers need for their own mental health; while the third focuses on birth trauma.”
According to the site MakeBirthBetter.org, around 20-45% of women perceive their childbirth as traumatic. An otherwise ‘normal’ birth may be perceived as traumatic due to things such as “loss of control, perceived threat or physical harm to self or baby, or negative attitudes of healthcare professionals involved in the birth.” Now imagine like many fathers these days, you’re in the delivery room watching as your partner suffers, feeling helpless and often ignored by medical professionals.
Pediatrician Dr. David Levine had his own personal experience with PPD which took the Yale-educated doctor to a very dark place.
While efforts are underway encouraging men to reach out, there is still a long way to go before many will feel comfortable seeking help or even discussing potential issues with their doctor or partner. For Mark Williams, it’s all about encouraging others not to wait. “I have been at my lowest ebb and have come out the other side. The best advice I can give you all is that the quicker you get the help, the quicker the recovery.”
If you think you or a loved one may be experiencing signs of mental illness, visit www.mhascreening.org to take a free, quick and confidential screen for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, and/or Alcohol or Substance Use Problems.
For more information surrounding mental health in dads, visit Dr. Mayers resources page as well as the Fathers page on Postpartum Support International’s site. In addition, here’s a quick infographic on men’s mental health in America: