You don't have to give birth to experience postpartum depression, experts say
Public awareness of the debilitating impact of postpartum depression on new moms has grown over the years, but many people don't realize it can affect men too, mental health experts say.
In a series of presentations at the American Psychological Association annual convention this week, a group of psychologists said about 10 per cent of new fathers experience symptoms of depression and anxiety in the weeks before, during or after their babies are born.
One of the main myths is men don't experience hormonal changes, therefore they can't get postpartum depression or anxiety.– Daniel Singley, psychologist
"One of the main myths is men don't experience hormonal changes, therefore they can't get postpartum depression or anxiety," said Daniel Singley, one of the presenters and a psychologist based in San Diego, Calif.
"In fact, plenty of research shows that men do get hormonal changes around the birth of children, and that hormonal changes is just one of a number of bio-psychosocial factors that cause postpartum mood issues," he said.
The Canadian Mental Health Association acknowledges that men and women and even parents who adopt can suffer from the condition, noting on its website that "a mother or father with postpartum depression may not enjoy the baby and have frequent thoughts that they're a bad parent."
Dealing with the issue of postpartum depression in men is important for the well-being of their children, Singley said, because fathers experiencing it are "much less likely" to be involved with their newborns — which, in turn, can negatively affect the babies' development.
Some symptoms don't necessarily match the ways in which we traditionally think about depression, he said.
"As opposed to being sort of hopeless and vegetative and weepy and so on, many times they'll experience it in what's called 'male-masked depression,'" he said.
Those symptoms can include:
Anger, frustration, irritability.
Increased substance use.
Physical manifestations of psychological stress, including migraines or stomach issues.
In addition, men can also suffer the typical symptoms of depression, including:
Excessive feelings of guilt.
Changes in sleep and appetite.
Feeling slow and lethargic.
A "really common" sign of postpartum depression in men, Singley said, is staying at work as much as they can.
"They feel out of control and useless at home, but if they work outside of the home, they tend to stick around work even beyond when they have to because they feel valued and more in control there."
'They're not alone'
Women and men with postpartum depression often feel "a decreased sense of self," said Dr. Andrew Howlett, a psychiatrist at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto.
Howlett agrees with the findings presented at the American Psychological Association convention, noting that the risk of depression among men during and after their partners' pregnancies is twice as high as the typical rate in the general population.
The stressors that come with having a baby can dramatically affect both partners, he said. In addition to realizing the immense responsibilities of caring for a child and suffering from sleep deprivation, they often struggle with the shift from being a couple to being co-parents.
Psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Howlett, who co-founded the Fathers Mental Health program in Toronto, says postpartum depression is an underdiagnosed issue among new fathers. (Craig Chivers/CBC)
"I think nothing really prepares men or women for that transition," Howlett said. "Some people don't recognize themselves sometimes, let alone their partner."
Even as they're feeling joy and excitement, new mothers and fathers "can also experience fear and worry and stress," he said.
But health-care providers, including family doctors and midwives, often don't screen fathers for postpartum depression, so it's underdiagnosed and therefore undertreated, Howlett said.
He and his colleagues are trying to change that through the Fathers Mental Health program, which he co-founded at St. Joseph's and Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.
There, new fathers who may be showing signs of depression receive assessments and counselling to help them understand the issues and feelings they're struggling with, Howlett said.
A big part of it, he said, is education to help "normalize their experience."
"Let them know they're not alone with this," he said.