It's not just mums who get postnatal depression. One dad shares his story

Matt Fearon and his daughter Amaryllis

Matt Fearon and his daughter Amaryllis

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Matt Fearon was no stranger to depression.

He had battled the condition on and off throughout his twenties, and his wife had experienced depression too, but his knowledge still wasn’t enough to protect him from the crippling postnatal depression (PND) that crept up after the birth of his first daughter.

“The despair felt deeper, and the darkness of the thoughts went in a completely different direction,” says Matt, 36, a copywriter with The Hoxby Collective who lives with his wife and daughter, Amaryllis. 

“PND left me suicidal. Almost every time I was gripped with the darkness, it always ended with the idea that everyone in my life would be better off if I wasn’t around.

“It made no difference to me if I lived anymore.”

Whilst postnatal depression is most commonly associated with women, awareness of PND in men is growing and it is has earned a title of its own: paternal depression.

Read more: 48% of people stay silent about mental health in the workplace, study finds

Research conducted by NCT found that one in three fathers were concerned about their mental health, and one in 10 were likely to have postnatal depression.

The figures are in line with NHS estimates that more than one in every 10 women will suffer from PND in the year after her baby’s birth.

Whereas new and expectant mothers are set to benefit from greater mental health provision under new NHS guidelines, there is little to no support for new fathers.

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Paternal depression often comes on some time after the birth; Matt says he didn’t notice the impact until a month after his baby was born and initially put his low mood down to the “whirl” of parenting.

“You’re told that parenting is chaos, it’s sleep deprivation, so at first I thought that’s what it was.

“I would hold my daughter before putting her to bed and be overwhelmed with helplessness of what I could ever bring to her life. I was never able to present in the moment.

“When she smiled at me, in moments of unbridled, unconditional love, it just wouldn’t penetrate – and it felt awful because you knew those moments of connection were disappearing.”

Dr Georgina Clifford is the director of the London Trauma Specialists clinic and works intensively with parents who suffer from postnatal depression and birth trauma.

“The period after the birth of a child poses a number of challenges to a father's wellbeing, including heightened difficulties in balancing work and personal needs, as well as taking care of a newborn - and in some cases other children - and supporting a partner who may also be struggling to cope,” she says.

She adds that men who have a history of mental health issues are particularly susceptible to paternal depression and that men are more likely to suppress their feelings with risk-taking behaviour like alcohol and drug use. 

While paternal depression manifests differently for everyone, common signs include a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood, loss or increase of appetite, feelings of irritability and guilt, as well as the sense that you're unable to look after your baby.

“Research has shown that a depressed dad will play and smile less with his child,” says Clifford. 

Read more: One third of children with mental health issues are denied help, says NSPCC

She adds that “men often report feeling ignored and invisible” in the postnatal period.

Matt found himself unable to confide in his friends of family, desperate to conform to “ingrained” standards of masculinity and hampered with a sense of guilt at not having gone through the rigours of pregnancy and labour as his wife had.

“I just thought that as a man I had to front up, to provide financially and emotionally, and not admit to weakness.”

He eventually sought help during a routine visit with his daughter to the county nurse. “After 20 minutes with the baby she turned to me and asked how I was – she was the first person to do that.”

It proved to be the start of Matt’s journey of recovery.

Subsequent talking therapy provided “the first step to unraveling everything” and he says that it was talking to a stranger, rather than someone he knew, that finally gave him the confidence to be open “and vulnerable”.

In October 2017, charity Fathers Reaching Out called for all new fathers to be screened for signs of paternal depression and PTSD but the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said there were no current plans to alter its guidelines on the topic.

For Matt, the lack of governmental help makes it more vital to raise awareness and end the stigma that surrounds paternal depression.

“I look back on it now as something that coloured my knowledge and relationship with my daughter,” he says. But: “There is a before and after. And the after feels even more special.”