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‘Black dog’ also stalks new dads

For every nine dads feeling nothing but joy at the birth of their child, one dad is suffering.

Although postnatal depression (PND) affects men less than women, its incidence in men – 10 per cent in Australia – remains a huge, rarely discussed issue. In extreme instances, it can even result in suicide.

Richard Fletcher, an associate professor in the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle, wants this to change. “There’s a perception that PND is a women’s issue only,” Fletcher said. “The fact that men can have it, too, is a new idea to a lot of people, including health workers.”

Fletcher explained that current PND support systems don’t suit male-specific symptoms, which are “not part of the standard depression set”; emotions like irritation, anger and a tendency to spend more time exercising or at work are typical for men with PND. He further advised that fatigue also obscures PND in males, making it harder to recognise and address it.

The ramifications of untreated PND in men are significant. For example, it causes economic harm over and above treatment expenses. Fletcher noted that men with PND are often inefficient at work, if they go at all.

More immediately, however, it costs kids. A “robust” longitudinal study by Fletcher and his colleagues revealed children of fathers with PND were three times more likely to have behaviour problems. Fletcher added that other studies have indicated children of fathers with PND developed psychiatric problems at twice the average rate.

Mum, too, is affected by dad’s PND. She is more likely to be depressed, and her parenting ability is diminished.

Studies into the causes of PND in men have been conducted. A 2012 RMIT study involving more than 3000 participants established job quality was the foremost risk factor for men developing PND. Issues such as inflexible work hours, lack of job security, lack of job satisfaction and inadequate paid parental leave all led to higher rates of PND. An unhealthy parental relationship was another leading risk factor. Socioeconomic status and the baby’s temperament had no bearing on the incidence of PND.

Fletcher supplemented these findings; “a history of depression and a depressed partner” are other major risk factors, he said.

And while he conceded there’s no prevention for PND, there are ways to reduce its rates. He said his pilot program, SMS4dads, is the “most promising” supportive strategy to date. As the website explains: “The idea is to send text messages with tips, information and links to other services for new dads. The tips in the texts will help a dad connect with his baby but they will also help him be a support for his partner, the mum. Some texts will remind dad to take care of himself.”

Fletcher adds: “The response from fathers has been positive. Only 10 per cent have dropped out, and we’ve received many positive comments. They’ve said things like they wouldn’t have had this help if it hadn’t been for the messages.” He said the service probably works so well because dads “don’t have to go to a clinic or make an appointment with a GP or see a psychologist – the information comes to [them]”. Also, it can be hard for them to find help online, due to the overwhelming mass of information available.

Fletcher recommended SMS4dads to all new fathers. “The information isn’t just about mental health,” he explained. “It’s about having a great time with your baby. That’s something that affects all dads, not just dads who are miserable.”

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