Fathers’ Mental Health Matters

by John Hoffman

It’s high time we started paying more attention to the mental health needs of fathers.

Mothers’ mental health has been on the radar screen for many years – it often gets mentioned in the same breath as children’s development.  And rightly so. It’s clear that if we want children to be mentally well, we need to support the mental health of their mothers.  That’s a no-brainer.

Well, supporting the mental health of fathers should be a no-brainer as well.  But is it? A fair bit of research has been done on postpartum depression (PPD) in mothers and how a mother’s state of mental health affects her children’s development. But it’s really only been about ten years since people even started asking if there might be a male version of postpartum depression. It turns out there is such a thing. And, it also turns out that a father’s state of mental health can affect his children. Here are a few stats about fathers and mental health.

• About 10% of fathers will experience some level of depression in the first year after a baby is born. That’s double the rate of depression in men at other times of life, although lower than the rate of maternal PPD.

• PPD tends to start later and develop more gradually in men

• Fathers with PPD often experience disruptions in partner relationships and tend to have less positive interactions with their babies

• Several studies suggest that, as with maternal depression, paternal depression is associated with an increased risk of behavioural and cognitive difficulties in children

• Fathers with mental health problems are less likely to seek help than mothers with mental health problems

• Between 24% and 50% of men with depressed partners will also be depressed themselves. This is particularly significant since a father’s support is crucial to mothers with PPD, and partners of depressed moms often also take on a heightened parenting role.

• Men whose partners had postpartum depression have told researchers that they didn’t really grasp what was wrong until after their partners recovered from PPD.

It all points to the fact that we need to bring fathers into the mental health loop. As Nicole Letourneau, Canada Research Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health, says, postpartum depression is a family issue, not a women’s health or men’s health issue.

I am very glad to hear this from someone as influential as Dr. Letourneau.

We’ve been hearing a lot in recent years about “erasing the stigma” and talking more openly about mental health issues. This is particularly important with regard to fathers of young children since, as noted earlier, men are not only are at increased risk for depression in the postpartum period, but also less likely than mothers to seek help. And lots of mothers who recovered from PPD will tell you they didn’t find it easy to seek help.

So let’s normalize the idea that fathers have mental health needs too and that postpartum depression should be looked at as a family issue. Because, whatever else we do to support families dealing with mental health problems, we need to make it a little easier for people to speak up and say that they need help.

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