Pregnancy and childbirth can be overwhelming for fathers as well as mothers. And, as is the case with certain mothers, this major upheaval can lead to depression in some fathers.
It is estimated that about 10 percent of fathers experience an episode of depression related to the arrival of a child, but the percentage may actually be higher, since perinatal depression is often not recognized in fathers. Not only are men less likely to ask for help, their symptoms are also not always typical of what we tend to associate with depression. As a result, their depression often goes undiagnosed.
Although fathers may present with some typical symptoms of depression (e.g. loss of interest in their usual activities, fatigue, weight loss, low morale), they also often have atypical symptoms. For example, fathers suffering from perinatal depression are often more irritable or bad-tempered, and more inclined than usual to enter into conflict with others. They may complain of various ailments, such as pain, headaches or digestive upset. Their alcohol (or drug) use may increase. Some may begin to doubt their masculinity or may exhibit compulsive or reckless behaviours. In more severe cases, some fathers may even have suicidal thoughts.
As with all cases of depression, symptoms can vary from one person to another, in terms of both diversity and intensity.
What causes paternal depression?
While we do not know exactly what causes paternal depression, we do know that the emotional and financial stress associated with the arrival of a baby can play a role. Studies have also shown that men are more likely to suffer from perinatal depression if their spouse also suffers from it, or if they are in conflict with their spouse or others in their immediate environment. Having had a depression in the past (regardless of the context) also increases the risk of another episode occurring upon the arrival of a new baby.
Recognizing symptoms so that paternal depression can be treated
The main problem with treating paternal depression is actually diagnosing the condition, since men are less likely to discuss their feelings and seek help. In addition, in the perinatal period, all the attention is usually focused on the mother and the baby, with very few resources devoted to the father’s well-being.
Once the condition is diagnosed, the treatment will be the same as with any other type of depression and may include drug therapy and/or psychotherapy.
Breaking the stigma
Depression is still too commonly taboo. Many people still wrongly believe that depressed individuals are not physically ill, that “it’s all in their head” or that they are weak of character. And yet, numerous studies have proven that depression is associated with very real physical changes in the brain.
Because of that stigma, many fathers who suffer from depression don’t speak up about what they’re experiencing, even though one of the key elements in recovering from depression is to have the support of family and friends.
It is important that we stop spreading the image of weakness that is associated with depression and that we begin to recognize that depression is a very real illness that requires treatment. If we come together to change our attitude towards depression, those who suffer from it will be more likely to ask for help and will finally get the support they need to get better.