When a couple welcomes a new baby into the family, everything changes. The parents tend to focus on the new baby’s needs and on the new mom’s physical and mental health. Family, friends and support systems tend to focus on mom and baby as well. But what about dads and partners? It’s a challenging time for the whole family. Yet, dads’ and partners’ mental health is not widely acknowledged, validated or discussed. This can lead to needless suffering, for the dad or partner as well as for the rest of the family.
“We know that approximately 10 percent of dads and partners also experience perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) during the perinatal period, with some estimates even going as high as 25 percent,” said Tara Croan, LCSW, PMH-C, women’s behavioral health therapist, Inova Women’s Behavioral Health Services.
What are the risk factors for PMADs in dads and partners?
Many of the same factors that raise the risk of developing PMADs in moms raise a dad’s or partner’s risk of developing PMADs as well. Potential causes and risk factors can include:
• A personal history of mental health challenges
• Major life changes and stressors
• Expectations about what being a dad or parent will be like
• Cultural or social expectations about fatherhood and parenthood
• A traumatic birth experience
• Hormonal shifts
• A partner who is experiencing postpartum depression
• Feelings of financial and economic uncertainty or stress
• Changes in the partner dynamic and relationship
• Physical changes
“The single biggest predictor of whether the dad or partner will experience a PMAD is if the mom is experiencing a PMAD. The prevalence of PMADs for dads or partners in those situations can be as high as 50 percent,” said Croan. “Sometimes, there can be a delayed response in dads or partners. For example, the mom might be experiencing a PMAD, and once mom starts to get better, dad starts to struggle, as he no longer is trying to be the one to hold it together.”
Signs and symptoms of PMADs in dads and partners
Although the causes and risk factors may be similar, the signs and symptoms of PMADs in dads or partners can be quite different. They can include:
• Increase in anger and irritability
• Withdrawal or isolation – being physically present but emotionally absent
• Increase in substance use or other unhealthy coping methods
• Sleep changes
• Appetite changes
• Disinterest in, or withdrawal from, activities the individual once enjoyed
• Guilt, restlessness, decreased concentration
• Lack of self-care
“Depression is not gendered. It’s when these symptoms appear – during the perinatal period – that differentiates these challenges from other cases of depression or anxiety,” said Rushi Vyas, MD, psychiatrist at Inova Women’s Behavioral Health Services and System Section Chief of Consult Liaison Psychiatry, Inova Behavioral Health Services.
Dads and partners sometimes suffer in silence rather than speaking up and getting help. Dads or partners can face stigma from others, contributing to a sense that they “shouldn’t” feel this way or that they should just endure it silently.
But, Dr. Vyas said, that approach creates needless suffering, both for the dad or partner and for the rest of the family. “Just like maternal depression, dad or partner depression has an effect on the child. Acknowledging PMAD symptoms and taking steps to address them can promote bonding with the child and can bolster the child’s development,” he said.
How do I get help?
Although it can be tough to step forward and ask for help, it’s crucial to do so. “PMADs in dads or partners is a medical issue, and just like other medical issues, it’s important to take action to address it,” said Sarah Orrison, LCSW, women’s behavioral health therapist, Inova Behavioral Health Services.
Dads or partners experiencing PMAD symptoms should reach out to a trusted healthcare provider, such as their primary care doctor or a behavioral health therapist. Attending to their needs, including eating, sleeping and exercise, is key. They can also get help by connecting with a range of wonderful resources focused on the needs of dads and partners. Whether through blogs, call or text lines, meetings, videos, or other methods, there are lots of ways dads and partners can connect with people who understand what parenting is like.
Tara Croan, LCSW, PMH-C, women’s behavioral health therapist, Inova Women’s Behavioral Health Services; Sarah Orrison, LCSW, women’s behavioral health therapist, Inova Behavioral Health Services; and Rushi Vyas, MD, psychiatrist at Inova Women’s Behavioral Health Services and System Section Chief of Consult Liaison Psychiatry, Inova Behavioral Health Services