Baby blues – they’re not just a mum thing

New fathers can suffer from postnatal depression too. So how do you recognise and deal with it?

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When Matt Boylan had his first child, he should have been the happiest guy in the world. He wasn’t.

About four months after the joy of the birth, things started unravelling.

“I couldn’t stop worrying about how we could afford all this. I started lying in bed staring at the ceiling just thinking ‘I can’t do this’. I didn’t feel anything for my kid, so I felt guilty.”

Matt had postnatal depression (PND) – not just being moody or feeling low, but a real illness that strikes huge numbers of new parents, dads included. While it’s known that PND affects around one in seven mothers, the figure of 1-in-20 new fathers given by the Post and Antenatal Depression Association is largely a guesstimate, and Raising Children Australia put the figure as high as 1 in 10.

“It definitely exists, is hugely under diagnosed and is grossly under treated,” says Philip Boyce, Professor of Psychiatry at Westmead Hospital, Sydney.

It’s different for dads

There are real differences in PND in mums and dads.

Dads don’t experience the depressive chemical changes from childbirth that a mother gets. Paternal depression “comes from external forces of having a baby, particularly if the mother is depressed” Prof Boyce explains.

Becoming a dad is serious business. The mental and practical impacts of an overnight role-change from partner to parent, plus sleep-broken nights, financial stress and the typical male behaviour of bottling up their feelings, is a recipe for depression. It can express itself with panic, withdrawal and even anger.

According to Julie Foster from Beyond Blue, the biggest problem for dads is actually recognising that they have a problem. The treatment is usually the easy part, she says.

If you think that muscling through your depression by yourself is the best way to treat it, consider this: research shows that it can harm your baby’s development.

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Coping with Dad stress

A study by the University of Oxford into the impact of paternal depression on young children found that when the father is depressed at two months, the child is twice as likely to have behavioural disorders at 21 months – irrespective of the behaviour of the mother.

Put simply, dad’s emotional health affects baby’s emotional health. Overwhelmingly, research has found that the first years of a child’s life are crucial to their long-term emotional development – including intelligence, sociability, parental connection and happiness.

“Having a happy, interactive dad is a huge benefit to the child,” says Melbourne-based GP Dr Sally Cockburn. “And the big problem with male PND is that it isn’t being diagnosed because the dads aren’t going to doctors after the birth. It’s such a busy period for everyone, they don’t take the time to do it.”

How to get help

Dr Cockburn advises dads to attend the standard mother-and-baby six-week check-up as well.

“We’d be able to catch more cases and, as a result, stop a lot of unnecessary suffering. Depression is such an ugly thing, but it can be successfully treated almost every time,” she says.

Like many new dads diagnosed with depression, Matt found out by chance when he joined his wife on one of those post-baby check-ups with the GP.

“I was having a bad day. The thought of going to work made me want to cry so I called in sick and my wife took me with her to get me out of the house,” he recalls.  

Matt was helped, not with drugs, but through a short series of counselling sessions.

“I like to think I would have come out of it myself, but getting help probably stopped me going through months of being miserable in what should have been the happiest time of my life.”

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