Becoming a father can negatively impact men’s mental health: survey
Conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Movember Foundation in June, the survey asked 4,000 fathers aged 18 to 75 in Canada and several other countries about their experiences as a new dad.
Of the respondents, who were also from the U.K., Australia and the U.S., 70 per cent said their stress levels increased in the 12 months after welcoming their first child.
Some 23 per cent of dads said they felt extremely isolated, too — 20 per cent reported losing a number of close friends in the same time period.
According to the results, new fatherhood also had a negative impact on physical health: 56 per cent of respondents said they experienced at least one new negative health behaviour in the year after becoming a dad. This included everything from exercising less to gaining weight to drinking more alcohol.
These results don’t come as a shock to Gregory Fabiano, a psychology professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in fatherhood.
Stigma associated with having mental illness as a man
In his research, Fabiano found men are generally less likely to seek support from the healthcare system due to stigma.
“If you look at the research, women are much better [than men] at accessing and engaging with resources that might help them,” he explained. The research supports these claims: a 2016 study found that Canadian women were more likely than men to seek help from their primary healthcare provider.
It’s not unlikely that this discrepancy extends to parenthood. “If you have a new mother, they may be more open to and maybe even have more opportunities to engage with ways to learn about what might happen to them,” he said.
Fabiano believes this could be because the healthcare system has been slow to adapt to the realities of modern parenting. In 1976, Canadian stay-at-home fathers accounted for 1.43 per cent of the primary caregiver population. By 2015, that number had risen to about 10 per cent.
Fabiano experienced this firsthand when he became a father.
“I was really energized to be a really good dad and [to] be really involved,” he said. “We had my son, and two weeks later we went to the first doctor’s appointment. When we got into the room, I realized there was only one chair.”
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Fabiano offered the chair to the baby’s mother. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but once the appointment began, he felt largely underfoot. “They talked with the mom… there was really nowhere for a second parent to be so I thought, ‘I’m not going to go to these anymore,'” Fabiano said.
Mark Henick has had a similar experience. He’s a mental health expert and the principal and CEO of Strategic Mental Health Solutions based in Toronto, a consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations and individuals provide meaningful, measurable mental health support.
However, despite his knowledge of the mental health system in Canada, he still struggled to find support specifically for fathers after his second child arrived.
“I’ve worked in the mental health sector and I’ve been deeply involved for more than a decade,” said Henick. “When I had my second child, I definitely experienced some symptoms of postpartum depression. But even for me, being somebody who knows the system very well, it was difficult to navigate and difficult to find help and resources.”
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“I think we do still see a significant amount of stigma,” he said. “For men in particular, there’s the societal view that men need to be the breadwinners, the survivors, the strong one in the family… so they can’t express their emotions.”
Although none of these stereotypes are true, they continue to prevent new fathers from opening up about their postpartum depression — even though the dangerous condition is a common issue for men. According to a recent meta-analysis of 43 studies, 10.4 per cent of new fathers experience postpartum depression within three to six months after a child is born.
This stigma can make fathers feel excluded from postpartum care, which can leave the mental health impacts of becoming a parent untreated and left to grow more severe.
The impacts of becoming a parent
For both men and women, there are several different ways first-time parenthood can impact your physical and psychological health.
“On the practical front, a lack of sleep is extremely detrimental for your mental health,” said Henick. “If you’re waking up every hour or two hours [with a new baby], many studies have shown that interrupted sleep is even worse than not getting much sleep at all.”
After welcoming your first child, most parents also experience a huge shift in the way they understand their identity — a shift which can have big implications for your relationships and other parts of your life.
“You’ve spent the last 30, 35, 40 years of your life defining who you presently are, and then all of a sudden, that has to change,” said Henick. “Now you’re a mother or a father. Now you’re responsible for another life.”
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Fabiano agrees. “Becoming a parent is a very stressful life event,” he said. “It’s a very joyous and happy and exhilarating life event, but it’s also incredibly stressful.”
Sleep deprivation, increased financial responsibility, strain on your personal relationships and the needs of your child are just some of your new potential sources of stress and anxiety as a new parent. “A lot of life changes very quickly,” said Fabiano.
In his view, fathers need exposure to these changes (and the best ways to handle them) long before the baby arrives in order to be better prepared.
What new fathers need
“Dads need to be involved not only when the child is born but also when they’re going to preschool, learning to read, developing friendships and making decisions about college and career,” said Fabiano.
Expectant fathers should be prepared to be “actively involved” in their child’s entire developmental trajectory. In Henick’s opinion, this requires more conversations with young men long before they’re even thinking about starting a family.
“I think that we need to do a better job of that from even school age, assuming that fathers are going to be equal parents,” he said. “I think we need to do a better job of shifting that cultural difference. It’s not just the mother’s responsibility to raise the child.”
It also means encouraging more discussion about how men are affected by mental illness more generally — something that has yet to happen on a large scale.
“How to actually identify what emotions you’re feeling, what to call them and how to deal with them,” Henick said. “Generally speaking, we don’t have that conversation [with boys and men].”
Parenting coach Julie Romanowski outlines a three-pronged approach to preparing men for fatherhood.
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“The first one is giving them the lowdown. “Saying, ‘hey, this is what you can expect,'” she said. She believes it’s crucial for the expectant father’s support network to be honest about how all-consuming the first few years of parenthood can be — especially since this is typically something only taught to women.
“Giving the father that information up front is ideal…. nothing is worse than fear of the unknown,” she said.
The second skill Romanowski teaches her clients is how to reassure oneself. “Who reassures us parents? Nobody,” she said. “Learning how to tell yourself, ‘it’s going to be okay — we got this’ is crucial.”
The third prenatal lesson every father needs is how to maintain his self-esteem. “There’s nothing like being a new parent that will shatter your confidence,” said Romanowski.
“Take time for yourself to develop and maintain that ]self-care] relationship,” she said.
Henick wants anyone struggling with mental health issues to know that “there’s hope out there.”
“People need to realize that… they should reach out for help and that there are people out there who can who can help them. These feelings are not forever,” he said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
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