It will come as no surprise that some new fathers will be anxious or highly stressed. However, most people believe only new mums suffer postnatal depression. This is not the case.
The rate of depression for dads is less than that for mums but our best estimate is that about one in ten dads will be affected. If there is a birth somewhere in Australia every 1 minute 46 seconds, then every day about 80 dads are being added to the depressed category.
The silence from government is puzzling, as paternal depression is expensive. Figures from 2012 show that health-care costs for new fathers’ depression totalled A$17.97 million and the economy lost A$223.75 million in productivity.
There are flow-on effects at home too. Feeling down and being grumpy is not the best way to start your fathering. Depressed dads in the US were four times more likely to hit their one-year-old babies and less than half as likely to read to them.
In the long run the effects of having a miserable father are dramatic. Studies following infants through childhood show a child of a depressed father has three times the rate of behaviour problems and twice the chance of a psychiatric diagnosis at seven years of age.
Sad dads affect mums too. Lack of partner support is a major risk factor for mothers developing depression. And it can make it harder for her to recover if she does feel down.
The simplest answer as to why we don’t hear more about paternal depression is that dads don’t talk about it. Some 40% of 1,500 fathers surveyed by beyondblue did not seek help even when stressed.
This may not simply be because the men saw depression and anxiety as a sign of weakness, which was a theme in the focus group results. The connection between mothers and depression may be so strong that it blinds men to the notion that they could be more than just stressed. The survey also found that 45% did not know that fathers could get postnatal depression.
As one dad described why he wouldn’t look for help with postnatal depression on the BeyondBlue website:
With all due respect, it’s the womens’ section – why would I look there?
It would be a mistake to focus only on fathers’ wish not to be weak. Mothers also shy away from mental illness labels and avoid asking for help. For their part, health workers do not have a great strike rate at picking up depression in mums or dads.
For mothers, though, we make an effort. The national perinatal depression initiative had all states involved in screening mothers and health staff were trained to improve referrals for mothers. But fathers don’t go for pregnancy check-ups and they have few contacts with health services.
Asking for help
We need new ways to connect to fathers. Apps such as Who’s Your Daddy? or Daddyo For New Dads offer easy access to information on parenting. SMS4dads is testing “checking in” with questions of mood and stress levels with back-up telephone help.
None of these will work without more awareness that a father’s depression has impacts not only on him but on his infants and his partner too.