Signs of postpartum depression in dads are often mistaken or missed, study shows

Newborn babies are attended to in the nursery of Aishes Chayil, a postpartum recovery center, in Kiryas Joel, N.Y. on Feb. 16, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Seth Wenig

While many people can pick up on signs of postpartum depression in new mothers, the same signs are often mistaken for something else or missed entirely in fathers, a British study suggests.

There needs to be greater awareness that the mental health disorder can occur in either parent for up to a year after the birth of a child, researchers say.

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New fathers, like mothers, can grapple with anxiety, depression and traumas and also struggle to bond with their babies, said Mark Williams, founder of Fathers Reaching Out, a UK-based charity that promotes mental health awareness. Williams was not involved in the new study.

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In fact, a previously published research review found that one in four fathers experienced postpartum depression within three to six months after a child was born.

Study leader Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, started researching the subject after he was diagnosed with the disorder after the birth of his son.

READ MORE: First postpartum depression drug for women approved in U.S.

“Once I was diagnosed, I wanted to do more research into it and find out why so many people, like myself, think that men can’t get postnatal depression,” Swami told Reuters Health via phone.

Swami and his colleagues recruited 406 volunteers, ages 18 to 70, and had them read two vignettes describing almost identical situations where the subject suffered from postpartum depression, but one with a man and another with a woman.

Participants were initially asked if they believed anything was wrong with the subjects. Almost everyone — 97 percent — responded “yes” for the vignette with the woman, and 79.5 percent responded “yes” for the male.

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Next, participants were asked what they thought was wrong. In the case of the mother, 90.1 percent correctly listed postpartum depression, postnatal depression or depression, while only 46.4 percent did so for the father.

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Answers listing “baby blues” as the reason were scored as incorrect because this kind of short-lived mood swing is different from postnatal or postpartum depression and usually resolves within a week after birth, Swami and his team write in the Journal of Mental Health.

For the woman, a clear majority of 92.9 percent said depression was the problem.

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Among those who did feel something was off with the man in the case study, 61 percent correctly thought it could be some form of depression. But 20.8 percent thought the father’s symptoms could be stress, 11 percent responded with tiredness and stress, and a few others said it could be anxiety, feeling neglected or “baby blues.”

The invisibility of their depression may force fathers to cope on their own instead of seeking professional help, the research team says.

One shortcoming of the study is that participants were recruited online, so they may not represent all adults, the researchers note.

“Because many people do not realize that men can get PND (postnatal depression), it is easier minimize the symptoms, the severity of PND, or the need to reach out and seek help,” said Brandon Eddy, an assistant professor from University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was not involved in the study.

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But some of the new results are encouraging, he said.

“Although a much higher percentage of respondents recognized PND in women, there was still a substantial amount that recognized PND in father,” Eddy said via email.

“There are many fathers out there who suffer from PND who think they are alone and nobody sees their suffering. More people are beginning to recognize that paternal PND is real,” he added.

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Previous research has shown that educational programs about maternal postnatal depression can improve awareness of the disease, the researchers wrote.

“Similarly rigorous programs to support new fathers and raise awareness of paternal postnatal depression are now urgently required,” they said.


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