New dads are at risk of experiencing the same symptoms of postpartum depression as women who’ve just given birth — despite the fact that their bodies don’t go through the same sort of changes.
A paper published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry finds that just over four percent of new fathers experience elevated symptoms of depression after their children are born.
The idea of postpartum depression among new dads is a relatively new one, and the study’s authors say raising awareness about the issue is a critical first step. That, combined with screenings, could help catch symptoms of depression among new fathers and treat them early.
“There is currently very limited recognition of, or provision for, psychological ill health among men in the perinatal period,” said Dean McMillan, a clinical psychologist at Hull York Medical School who has studied the issue. But McMillan, who was not affiliated with the new study, said men are hesitant to ask for help.
For the new study, researchers at the University of Auckland interviewed a diverse group of more than 3,500 New Zealand men with pregnant partners about their mental health. Their symptoms were ranked on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, a screening tool that’s also used in women who’ve given birth.
The new study reported a handful of causes associated with men experiencing depression after a child’s birth: being in fair to poor health, no longer being in a relationship with the child’s mother, being unemployed, and having a history of depression.
Postpartum depression is still significantly less prevalent among men than among women. It’s estimated that about 14 percent of women experience depression after birth, with symptoms ranging from anger and anxiety to hopelessness and trouble bonding with a new baby.
Those symptoms can sometimes be severe — 20 percent of women with postpartum depression reported having suicidal thoughts in a study published published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2013.
Researchers don’t know why some women are more vulnerable to postpartum depression, though they suspect genetics, previous mental health issues, and sleep deprivation after birth all could play a part.
Women also experience significant hormonal changes during pregnancy, after childbirth, and while breastfeeding that can throw their emotions for a loop. Estrogen and progesterone levels spike during pregnancy and then plummet back to normal levels shortly after giving birth. Thyroid hormone levels might also drop after birth, which can cause symptoms of depression.
Men don’t have that same hormonal roller coaster — so what’s driving their symptoms?
“Fathers [tend] to discuss their mental health problems in terms of ‘stress,’ rather than with reference to depression or anxiety,” said Elizabeth Littlewood, a University of York researcher who conducted a similar study of men in the United Kingdom. That study, published in January, found that fathers commonly expressed feelings of guilt over not being able to support their partner while at work.
New dads also often questioned the legitimacy of their feelings and worry that needing support for themselves would detract from support for their partners, Littlewood said.
Previous research has also suggested that not having as much time at home with their infants might make it more difficult for men to get “rewards in parenting” — such as a smile from their newborn. And that, in turn, could exacerbate symptoms of depression.