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July 7, 2020
By Nicole Arzt, LMFT
There’s no doubt that we’ve made significant strides in discussing mental health in pregnant women and new mothers. Today, most doctors screen women for depression and anxiety before and after having birth. We also understand the impact of how a mother’s well-being affects her relationship with her newborn.
But there is minimal discussion about fathers and their mental health. Research shows that anywhere between 2-25% of dads experience depression during their partner’s pregnancy or in the first year of birth. Unfortunately, most people don’t talk about it, and they don’t recognize the warning signs.
If you suspect your partner is struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety, it’s crucial to know the symptoms. Let’s get into it.
Men and women experience postpartum depression and anxiety differently. Research shows that men tend to develop symptoms later, often after the onset of the mother’s depression or anxiety. Where depression typically manifests as sadness and tearfulness for women, men are more likely to exhibit signs of anger. These signs may include exacerbated feelings of frustration, pessimism, irritability, and aggression.
Men may exhibit symptoms of withdrawal. They may not be as engaged with their partners, at work, or in various social situations. Some men shut down altogether. They are also more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors like domestic violence and substance abuse.
Depression or anxiety can also manifest in negative parenting behaviors. Depressed or anxious fathers may feel less connected and engaged with their babies. They might experience intrusive thoughts and show hostility towards their child.
The most significant risk factor for paternal postpartum depression is maternal postpartum depression. Other significant risk factors include:
The first step is awareness. Both mothers and fathers should understand the possibility of paternal depression or anxiety. During the pregnancy, actively involving the father during the planning stages can help ease some of the uncertainty. Likewise, support from other family members about the father’s parenting role can also have a positive effect.
Men and women both benefit from expressing their emotions to one another. After a baby is born, couples often find themselves exhausted and consumed by the new transition. Unfortunately, they typically struggle to connect with one another. Making a conscious effort to check in can help both partners feel connected and understood.
Additionally, just like with mothers, research shows that talk therapy and medication can also benefit men. Therapy provides a safe and non-judgmental environment for men to process their feelings related to parenting. Medication can help with stabilizing emotional regulation and stress management.
While you can’t make your partner seek help, you can start by identifying your concerns. Ideally, you should pick a neutral time (i.e., not at three in the morning when the baby has been up all night) and place.
Ask him how he’s feeling about all the changes. If he indicates that he’s been struggling, let him know that you’re here and that you want to be supportive. Be empathic and use I-statements to indicate how you feel. Avoid making accusations or criticizing your partner- doing so can increase the likelihood of them reacting with defensiveness.
Finally, emphasize the importance of your relationship. Let him know that, despite all these new changes, you want to remain united and connected. Emphasize how meaningful it would be to you for him to get the support he needs.
Severe depression or anxiety can result in physical or emotional harm. If your partner is now using drugs or alcohol, he cannot safely watch the baby. Furthermore, if they are engaging in any form of domestic violence, you and your child are at risk of getting hurt.
That said, most intrusive thoughts related to regret, fear, or anger towards the baby do not imply action. They usually indicate the need for professional treatment. Fortunately, in almost all cases, paternal depression or anxiety can be successfully resolved.
Nicole Arzt is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with nearly a decade of experience treating women's issues related to parenting and family dynamics, complex trauma, and substance use disorders. She is the proud mama of her newborn son.
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