Breaking the Stigma: The Truth About Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders in New Fathers

Parenthood comes with a lot of changes, challenges, and responsibilities. For some new fathers, these changes can lead to a range of emotional and mental health issues that often go unnoticed and untreated. Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) are commonly associated with women during and after pregnancy, but research shows that they also affect a significant number of new fathers. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health struggles in men often prevents them from seeking help and support. It’s time to shed light on the truth about PMADs in fatherhood, help people learn to identify the signs, encourage those suffering to seek treatment, and support new fathers in their journey towards mental health. 

A father with Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder holding his newborn child

Many individuals are familiar with the ways in which PMADs (perinatal mood and anxiety disorders) can affect mothers. In truth, though, the postpartum period presents all new caregivers–including fathers and other non-birthing parents–with a massive identity shift and an overwhelming flood of sudden changes. In fact, 1 in 10 new fathers experience some form of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder within the first year after the birth of their child. 

It is important that we expand our conversation around mental health struggles for all expecting and new parents. Part of that means recognizing that PMADs encompass an umbrella of disorders beyond just postpartum depression, that they can occur anytime during pregnancy or within the first year of birth, and that suffering in silence is not the answer. It also means bringing awareness to the fact that fathers and other non-birthing parents can experience PMADs too. 

Why Non-Birthing Partners are at Risk of Developing a PMAD

Let’s start by discussing why non-birthing partners are at risk for developing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder. Consider the demands placed on these individuals—not only are they experiencing losses and changes associated with the transition to parenting, but they are also often experiencing the societal pressures and expectations to be the “support system” and “provider” for the family. This can create a lot of fear or anxiety for the non-birthing partner. Some other risk factors for developing a PMAD (in addition to the overall psychological adjustment to parenthood) include a family history of mental health difficulties, sleep deprivation, lack of social support, and feelings of isolation. 

For the rest of the blog, we focus on fathers explicitly for the purpose of increased readability, with the understanding and acknowledgement that there are many forms of non-birthing parents. 

How to Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders in Fathers

PMADs can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of new fathers. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can affect one’s ability to function normally and enjoy their life. Common symptoms of PMADs in fathers include:

– Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed

– Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness

– Anxiety, restlessness, and  irritability

– Withdrawal from relationships

– Fatigue, lack of energy, and difficulty concentrating

– Difficulty bonding with their child

– Physical symptoms (headaches, stomach pain)

– Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

We know that these symptoms have real and meaningful effects. Research has shown that depression in fathers is related to a higher risk of behavioral problems in preschool aged children, increased strain on family and marital relationships, and a higher risk of other mental health conditions. 

How to Help Fathers Who Are Experiencing a PMAD

So, what do we do? The first step is to normalize this experience. Being a new father while supporting a primary caregiver (who may also be struggling following the enormous transitions associated with a new baby) can be challenging.

We need to send the message to new fathers that it is okay to not be okay

—that their feelings are valid and real, and that they don’t need to put their own mental health needs aside. In doing so, we can minimize the shame that caregivers may experience. This means a paradigm shift from supporting mothers to supporting families.

We need to provide space for fathers to label their own feelings and validate the magnitude of the transition. Part of this means raising awareness and providing families with information throughout their conception and pregnancy journey—for example, facts related to prevalence of or risk factors for PMADs. This can (and should) happen at the OB’s office, but it can also be provided by a primary care provider or community leader.

We also need to increase social support for expecting fathers, such dads groups, and introduce these resources to fathers proactively. That is, we want to encourage new fathers to “cope ahead”—helping them think through potential challenges and identify skills and resources to help (by the way, this is great modeling for kids). One place to start is the Postpartum International Website. A section of this site is targeted just for dads and is an incredibly helpful resource. Another wonderful resource is the PANDA organization. 

Treatment Options for Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders in Fathers

If you suspect that you or your partner may be suffering from a PMAD, it is critical to get professional support as soon as possible. As is the case for birthing parents, treatment for PMADs in fathers involves processing feelings and learning how to cope with them, and may include both psychotherapy as well as medication. Research shows that treatment is effective and beneficial. Though fathers may attempt to “hold it all in” to protect their families, the truth is that the best thing they can do for their partners and children is to get support and treatment.

Family members play an important role in supporting fathers navigating a PMAD. For example, dad should be encouraged to spend quality time with the baby, and childcare shifts should be scheduled to promote adequate sleep. As much as possible, dads should be motivated to participate in activities that provide a sense of pleasure or accomplishment (getting dinner with friends, going on a run, or even having time to finish a favorite book or movie). Set up systems to reduce the risk factors for developing a PMADs even before the baby arrives: line up a support network, discuss and plan finances, make to-do lists.

Newborn baby holding onto his fathers finger

Supporting Those With Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders

A key takeaway is that being proactive is key. When we are able to anticipate challenges and emotions that may arise after a new child, it removes a lot of the fear and isolation caregivers may otherwise feel. So, whether you are a dad having a tough time, or you have observed a loved one struggling, you know how to prepare, what to look out for, and where to find support. 
If you think you or someone you love may be experiencing a PMAD, click here to schedule a free assessment consultation call with Upshur Bren Psychology Group to learn about support options that would be best for you.

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