What happens when fathers suffer postnatal depression?
Mental health issues affect one in 10 new Dads, with first-time parents at greater risk
Research suggesting a sensitive and supportive father will raise children with better social skills.
Research, testing the stress and immune biomarkers in children and their mothers who suffer from depression, has highlighted maternal depression as an important concern for public health. Children have been found to respond differently to stress, with altered immunity, as a cause of the parent child relationship when mental health issues play a negative role.
A positive father-child relationship can moderate the negative effects of maternal mental health, but what happens when Dad suffers postnatal depression?
Mental health issues can affect one in 10 new Dads, with first-time fathers at greater risk according to the UK’s National Health Service, which commenced a screening programme for new fathers in 2018. As with mothers, depression in Dads can change and affect the relationship with a child and the result can have an impact on the child’s development.
Cognitive behaviour therapist and counselling psychotherapist Susi Lodola explains how one of the most important parts of a child’s progress is the development of the brain. She says, “brain formation is pre-programmed and can be divided into two phases which are pre-natal and post-natal. Generally speaking, during the pre-natal development, the interaction between genetic and environmental factors play a complex role and by the end of pregnancy all major brain regions are formed.”
As a new-born, we are ready and waiting to be moulded as the first year of our life plays out with momentous milestones. Our development comes from our environment which is ordinarily provided for by our parents. In order to bloom and grow into maturity, children need the emotional support from parents who are confident in their parenting approach.
“Children learn to distinguish sounds, recognize faces, emotions and many other features,” says Lodola. “From birth onwards children form attachments to both parents which is critical for the child’s development and forms a secure base for the child to gain experience in the world.”
We have a defined responsibility in raising our children as best we can, but depression can greatly affect how we parent. Adverse mental health has a way of breaking down the rational thoughts of a parent who is faced with the difficult challenges of raising children.
The father child relationship has a powerful impact with research suggesting a sensitive and supportive father will raise children with better social skills while the child of a distressed father may have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Depression can result in a detached father, a tough disciplinarian or a Dad who lacks confidence in their parenting skills.
“Fathers form a major influence on a child’s development and a father’s poor mental health could hinder the formation of early childhood attachment,” says Lodola, “And therefore, no bond between father and child may be established. The failure to establish a bond has a knock-on effect on how a father may parent. He may not be available or be able to engage with their children and therefore may not be able to form a nurturing relationship with his child.
“In addition to the lack of attachment, fathers who experience poor mental health may not be able to communicate with their child effectively. It has been demonstrated that open communication between fathers and children is beneficial to children’s well-being and it has been found that when fathers engage in open and ongoing communication, children had better body image satisfaction and higher levels of well-being.”
We say we are fighting the battle to break the barriers and stigma surrounding discussing our mental health. Yet, we are not always listening as intently as we should, negating the genuineness of what someone is going through on a level that is not visually evident such as a broken leg. Postnatal depression in fathers often goes unrecognised in Ireland, as no screening programme exists. Often, symptoms occur three to six months after a baby is born, with many not reporting or dismissing the signs of depression, attaching them to the belief that dealing with sleepless nights and a difficult routine with a baby is the cause of their change in mood.
It is vital we understand and support a father on their journey into fatherhood for their own well-being and that of their children. “Research shows when fathers experience mental health issues,” says Lodola, “children are at a higher risk of behavioural and emotional difficulties. The scale of this risk is similar to when mothers experience mental illness. Numerous studies have demonstrated the overall positive effect of father involvement on children’s social, educational, behavioural, and psychological outcomes throughout their development.
“Those outcomes include psychological health and well-being, behavioural problems, substance misuse, criminality, economic disadvantage, capacity for empathy, peer relationships, non-traditional attitudes to earning and child care, satisfaction with adult sexual partnerships, and self-esteem and life-satisfaction.”
Understanding how a father’s mental health may be affected on the birth of a baby and discussing risk factors with them prior to the birth is essential. Lodola agrees, saying there needs to be more focus on mental health for the entire family unit. “I find understanding what to expect in any given situation helps an individual cope better,” she says, “because the situation is normalised and then the father may be more open to address whatever difficulties he is facing. Providing information on a father’s hormonal changes that occur during his partner’s pregnancy as part of antenatal visits is helpful.”
Lodola also suggests that policies in work places and public policies must address this issue and develop strategies on how to support fathers who experience mental health issues.
“In my experience,” she says, “parents often don’t understand the impact their actions have on a child’s development, and how small changes in their family dynamics can have a huge impact on their child’s well-being. Giving parents tools on how to cope with mental health issues in the home can set them up from the beginning of parenthood.
“Mental health can be an issue at some stage, but it is okay and there are tools, or steps you can take to address the issue.”