Dads develop postpartum depression, too, and it can impact their child's mental health

It’s not just moms. Dads can develop postpartum depression, too.

As a new postpartum pill for women gains national attention, health experts say it’s also important to highlight men’s mental health needs after having a baby, with researching showing 1 in 10 fathers experience postpartum depression and anxiety.

A new study also suggests addressing paternal mental health is vital for baby's health after finding children born to dads with depression are at increased risk of developing depression themselves.

The report, published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open, reviewed 16 studies between 2002 and 2021 that looked at more than 7 million father-child pairs. Researchers found paternal depression was associated with a 42% increased risk of depression in the child.

“Thinking about child outcomes, we thought historically that if mom is better, then the child is safe and well, and they will go through a normal development,” said Sheehan Fisher, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who is not affiliated with the study. “But if we treat the mom and the father is not well, then the child is at risk for mental health issues.”

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Symptoms of paternal depression

Men don’t always exhibit traditional symptoms of depression as society and culture tend to discourage men from reporting signs and seeking help, experts say.

While symptoms in women can be characterized by hopelessness, withdrawing, and mood swings, Fisher said male postpartum symptoms are typically expressed through anger and coping mechanisms.

“Fathers are less likely to feel comfortable saying they’re feeling sad or cry,” he said. “The risk is that fathers are trying to mask their depression by engaging in what we call externalized behaviors that make them cope with their stress but then hides the fact that they’re dealing with a significant underlying disorder.”

According to an article by Dr. Robyn Horsager-Boehrer, an obstetrician and gynecologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, signs of depression in men may include:

  • Anger, sudden outbursts, or violent behavior

  • Irritability

  • Increased use of substances, like alcohol or prescription drugs

  • Low motivation

  • Poor concentration

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Withdrawing from relationships

  • Working a lot more or less

It can be difficult to identify symptoms of depression in men, Fisher said. “The concern is that we may be underestimating how much fathers are dealing with depression during parenthood."

Why do dads develop postpartum depression?

No, men don’t go through the same hormonal changes as women during pregnancy and childbirth.

But studies show there are certain hormonal changes in men that could be linked to an increased risk of depression, particularly decreases in testosterone. Fathers are also more likely to experience signs of depression if their partner is also dealing with postpartum depression, experts say.

While women typically experience postpartum depression within the first month of giving birth, Fisher said postpartum depression is highest among men about three to six months after their child's birth and sometimes lasts well into their early childhood.

Although 1 in 5 stay-at-home parents are dads, according to the Pew Research Center, Fisher said society still sees them as secondary parents, sometimes criticizing or devaluing their role as a parent, which can contribute to their depression.

“Many fathers are more involved with their children but don’t have the blueprint on how to be a family because their father wasn’t involved,” he said.

It’s great to see men moving in this direction, he added, but they’re going through this with little cultural, medical and policy support.

How can fathers seek help

Fathers who are experiencing symptoms of depression can seek help in support groups or from primary care or mental health providers, but experts say more needs to be done to make space for men in the clinical setting.

Fathers who go to obstetric or pediatric appointments should be screened for paternal depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders that are common among parents postpartum, Fisher said.

In 2020, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published an editorial that urged pediatricians to assess the mental health of new parents, regardless of gender. But many dads might not feel comfortable going to child wellness visits and consequently miss the opportunity to get screened.

“That’s where the cultural change needs to happen,” he said. “I don’t want fathers to feel alienated from the medical system. The system needs to be approachable.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Postpartum depression affects dads, too. It can put child at risk.