Postpartum depression is something that seems to only affect new moms, yet experts say many fathers can suffer from depression after the birth of a baby, too.
Paternal postnatal depression isn’t just the baby blues or adjusting to fatherhood. It’s a real condition that, left untreated, can linger for years and affect a man’s quality of life, his relationship with his spouse and his children’s well-being.
Here, read on to find out if your partner is at risk, the signs you should look for and what you can do to help him cope.
Studies show that approximately 10 to 14 percent of new dads have paternal postnatal depression. Yet experts agree even more men are likely suffering in silence.
“The numbers could be higher because men are less likely to identify that they’re depressed and ask for help,” said Dr. Christina D. Hibbert, a psychologist and author of “This Is How We Grow” and “Who Am I Without You?”
A new baby, whether it’s the first or the fifth, can trigger depression in men. What’s more, a study in the journal Depression Research and Treatment found that men can show signs of depression even while their wives are pregnant.
One of the reasons may actually be hormonal. Research has found that just as the major hormonal shift in women right after giving birth can trigger postpartum depression, men can experience a dip in testosterone, which has been linked to depression. It’s unclear if testosterone levels drop so men can better nurture their children or if it’s due to the huge life change fatherhood brings, but it can happen.
Other factors that can increase a man’s chances for depression include sleep deprivation, stress, a family or personal history of depression or mental illness, relationship strife, and the overwhelming transition to parenthood. Men are also more likely to suffer from depression if they feel disconnected from or even jealous of their partners or the new baby.
Another thing to consider is that 50 percent of men whose partners are depressed will be as well.
Signs you should look for
Unlike moms with postpartum depression who are more likely to cry or talk about their feelings, the signs of paternal postnatal depression in men are much more hidden. Although men may feel weepy, or suffer from fatigue or changes in sleep and appetite, they might not show it, Hibbert said.
Instead, men can become absorbed in work, media use or video games. They tend to withdraw or become isolated, become angry or argue more with their partners. They may have impulsive risk taking behaviors or abuse alcohol or prescription drugs. Or they may have headaches, stomachaches or muscle aches.
“A lot of men turn their mental illness into a physical illness because that’s more acceptable,” Hibbert said.
What you can do
Left untreated, paternal postnatal depression can be chronic. What’s more, children who live with a father who has depression are more likely to have emotional or behavioral problems themselves, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics.
Although seeking help from a mental health provider is ideal, most men are comfortable seeing their primary care physician first. Whether he prescribes medication or makes a referral, or your husband is willing to go to couples therapy, take it one step at a time.
“Wherever he’ll go, get him there,” Hibbert said.
In addition, there are other ways you can help your partner cope:
Give him space.
Encourage your partner to make time for exercise, friends or hobbies, which are all great coping mechanisms.
Spend time together.
One of the best things you can do to help your partner is to carve out time for just the two of you to connect. And when you’re ready, sex is also important for your relationship and it shows your husband that you love him.
Plus, as you settle into your new roles as parents, it’s also very easy for conflict to arise. So showing your support and nurturing your relationship is key.
“Keep approaching him with thoughtfulness, concern and care because the demands are going to pull you apart very rapidly,” said Dr. Jessica Michaelson, a psychologist and early parenthood coach in Oakland, Calif.
Let him be a father.
Allow your partner to spend time with the baby and let go of some of your expectations about how to dress, feed or rock her.
“Let him do things his way so that can build him up as a father,” Hibbert said.
Although it’s easy to fall into a pattern of anger when one or both partners are depressed, it not good for your relationship or your baby. Instead, validate his feelings but agree that you will talk in a more gentle, calm and respectful way, Michaelson said.
Instead of criticizing or attacking him because he is withdrawn, for example, Michaelson suggests leading with a “soft open,” as in “I really miss you and I want to feel close and I think you do too.”
“Find a place that’s a common ground where it’s very positive and joining,” she said.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.