Although there’s certainly more work to be done, great strides have been made in the last few years when it comes to diagnosing, treating, and bringing awareness to postpartum depression. When my first child was born 10 years ago, PPD awareness was out there, but hardly anyone talked about or acknowledged it. And yet over time, countless women have bravely opened up about their struggles, which has opened the doors for others to get the treatment they so desperately need.
But more recently, another side of the condition has come to light: It turns out that postpartum depression and anxiety isn’t just confined to moms — it can strike dads, too. And while it doesn’t impact quite as many dad as it does moms, the number of dads who exhibit PPD symptoms is actually kind of startling, with some studies estimating that as many as 13-19 percent of dads experience a postpartum mood disorder in the first six months after their babies are born.
I know some of you out there are probably rolling your eyes right about now, wondering to yourself how someone who hasn’t experienced pregnancy, childbirth, or hormonal mood swings after birth could possibly experience a postpartum mood disorder. Those doubts are understandable, but according to researchers, just being a parent is apparently a pre-requisite for PPD. In fact, The New York Times recently reported that even adoptive parents experience postpartum depression. Not only that, but dads who experience it often have lowered testosterone levels, which may point to a hormonal component at work for them.
But whatever the cause of paternal PPD, a research team from Sweden is asking all of us to take this condition more seriously. In a new study, published last month in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, the authors of the study not only note that the rates of postpartum depression in men are sometimes as high as 25 percent, but that the symptoms of the disease often present themselves in vastly different ways for men. As a result, the screening tools that are now available (designed specifically for women) are not adequate.
The researchers are urging the medical community to develop a screening tool to evaluate new dads for the disorder, and explain that many of the same things that trigger PPD in women (exhaustion, major life-style shifts, doubts and fears about parenthood, etc.) do so in men as well. But for dads, the symptoms they experience are pretty different than the ones moms do, and we all need to become aware of this.
The team interviewed 447 new Swedish dads, and found that the predominant signs were restlessness, irritability, low tolerance for stress, and lack of self-control. They also point out that these were not the same symptoms that most medical providers are taught to look for in women, and that the standard PPD questionnaires used for women did not generally list these symptoms.
Most importantly, dads are simply not screened for postpartum mood disorders in the first place. And that’s a major problem, according to the researchers.
“In most countries, they are not even asked how they feel,” Elia Psouni, associate professor of developmental psychology at Lund University, told Time.
Thankfully, none of that is stopping this Swedish research team from taking matters into their own hands. Psouni and her colleagues went ahead and developed a PPD screening tool for dads on their own — and even tried it out on a limited basis.
Although the team says that the information they gleaned from their PPD screening tool may not be representative of the dad population far and wide (all dads who participated were volunteers, rather than a random sampling from the population at large), they found that a whopping 27 percent of new dads screened with their tool showed signs of PPD.
Maybe the most troubling thing about this all is that so few of these dads had ever reached out for help. Although a third of them said that they’d had thoughts of self-harm, only a small few had sought professional help. According to the study, 83 percent of the men who were categorized as moderately or severely depressed had not shared their feelings with anyone at all.
“Telling people you feel depressed is a taboo,” Psouni told Time. “As a new parent, you are expected to be happy.”
Psouni added that men are less likely than women to seek help for mental health issues in general, which only complicates the problem. And because many dads with PPD never get help, their symptoms often extend even beyond the first year of their baby’s life (the research team thinks that men should be screened past the twelve month mark for this reason).
Their answer is that a PPD screening tool be developed for dads ASAP, and that it become commonly used across the board. Of course, implementing such a screening would be a task in and of itself. And encouraging dads to seek help for their diagnosis would be equally difficult to implement. But it would at least be a start — and an important acknowledgment that paternal PPD is real, and that dads deserve to feel better.
If you know a new dad who is struggling with signs of postpartum depression or anxiety, the study researchers recommend talking with them, and opening up. It’s important that parenting not be painted as all sunshine and roses, either, they explain.
“Inspiring and fulfilling as it may be, parenting is hard work and may change the way we co-parents relate to each other,” says Psouni.
Reaching out to a trained professional like a doctor or therapist is really important as well.
“It is better to reach out for help if you feel down or agitated,” Psouni says, “[T]han not to reach out and then regret the time you spent feeling alone in it, and losing this time with your child.”