Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a new dad, and a month or so after our son was born, my wife started acting strangely. Thanks to an article you wrote a while back, I recognized the signs of postpartum depression—she was sleeping more than usual, putting on weight, crying a lot, losing interest in things she loved to do, and generally not liking motherhood. I convinced her to see a therapist who specializes in postpartum depression and she’s better now. Looking back, I realize that I’ve been struggling with some odd symptoms too: I’m having a lot of trouble making decisions, I’m frequently angry, and I find myself avoiding my wife and baby. I asked the therapist who helped my wife whether I might have postpartum depression too, but she just about laughed me out of the room. Do new dads get depressed? And if so, what can I do to get help?
A: The short answer is, yes, dads get postpartum depression too. In fact, a recent study found that as many as 25% of new dads suffer from it. Your question about how to get help is, as you discovered, a bit more complicated.
Unfortunately, too many mental health professionals diagnose depression—including the postpartum kind—by looking at the traditional symptoms like the ones your wife had. The problem is that men often don’t have those symptoms. Instead of anxiety, crying jags, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, or loss of interest in favorite activities, many men—including you—get angry, avoidant, impulsive, irritable, abuse alcohol or drugs, or may even become violent, according to Kathleen Biebel and Shums Alikhan, coauthors of the study I mentioned above.
No one knows exactly what causes postpartum depression in new dads. However, some groups of men are more susceptible than others. The clearest link is if your partner is depressed herself, or if you have a personal history of depression. Other factors include financial problems, a poor relationship with your partner or parents, an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, or whether you had “couvade syndrome” (the physical symptoms of pregnancy that 25-75% of expectant dads get, which may include weight gain, headaches, nosebleeds, and even cramps). Dads of all socio-economic levels and ethnicities are equally likely to develop postpartum depression, and it’s more common with first babies.
It’s very important that you see another therapist as soon as possible. Depression—regardless of what triggers it—is nothing to be ashamed of, and without treatment, it’ll only get worse. At the very least, your depression could rob you of the joys a new baby brings. At worst, it can negatively affect your marriage and/or your job, and it can even cause drug or alcohol problem.
Interestingly, the depression you’re feeling now may have some harmful long-term effects on your son and any children you might have in the future. Your baby will learn a lot about how to interact with the world by watching you. But if you’re not able to give him the attention, affection, and engagement he needs, his cognitive and language development may be delayed when he’s a toddler. He may also have less self-control, be less cooperative, and have more emotional and behavioral problems than kids with less-depressed dads when he hits the fifth grade, according to two studies published by researchers at Michigan State. Looking out even further, infants of depressed dads are more likely to suffer from depression and other mental health issues when they become young adults.
You can find more information on postpartum depression in dads at www.postpartummen.com.
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