Why Aren’t We Talking About Paternal Mental Health?

Fathers with perinatal mental health problems are 47 times more likely to be rated as a suicide risk than at any other time in their lives, says Ella Delancey Jones. So why aren't we addressing it?

Paternal mental health

by Ella Delancey Jones |
Updated on

I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression for a long time. When I found out I was pregnant, I knew I would need extra support pretty much as soon as the two lines formed on the pregnancy test, informing me that I was having mine and my husband’s first child - and that life as we knew it was about to change.

I was referred to the perinatal mental health team where I underwent thorough assessments, hours spent delving into my background to formulate a robust plan for me to receive the necessary help needed to support my mental health throughout my pregnancy and beyond.

Since day one, I’ve had friends, family and professionals asking about my wellness, how I’m coping and how they can help me. Comparatively, my husband, William, has been slapped on the back, congratulated time and again for doing ‘his bit’ and receives an NHS email each week telling him how my body is changing and how he can support me.

William has always been a fantastic person. He’s compassionate, gentle, thoughtful and helpful - always looking on the bright side of any situation. It’s yin and yang with us. I’m the worrier, he is the pragmatic one, and this hasn’t changed since we found out we were expecting. He has been consistently calm throughout the rapidly passing weeks, bringing me down from climbing the walls when I’m worrying about financial strains, my changing body, a house move and work pressures.

We’re incredibly close. We’re honest and upfront with one another; sharing the same concerns but revelling in the joys and excitement of what’s to come. He’s handling this well, I thought. I didn’t think I had reason to believe otherwise. I was wrong.

Fathers with perinatal mental health problems are 47 times more likely to be rated as a suicide risk than at any other time in their lives.

At 3am one night, I woke up to the sight of William on the edge of the bed, silently crying. When he finally spoke, he told me that he’d been feeling down and on edge for ages, overwhelmed with worries about being a good dad, coping with work and looking after me and the baby. I had had no idea. I worried that our communication had broken down, that I’d missed some signs or worse, that he hadn’t felt comfortable in telling me his concerns, but he assured me that no - that wasn’t it. He was just trying to do what was “expected”. To “be strong” and keep it together.

Wracked with guilt and worrying about the implications of us both imploding, I tried to support him the best way that I knew how - make a plan. I tried to find practical help or a service for him, but kept hitting a wall. Research led me to hundreds of places signposting dads on how to get mental health help for their partner, not themselves.

It shouldn’t be this way, and needs to change. Marvyn Harrison, Chief Executive of Dope Black Dads, a digital safe space for Black fathers, explains that my husband’s behaviour is nothing out of the ordinary: “The conditions for men to ask and receive help is improving but I think the empathy around the male parenting experience has diminished to an unhealthy level. This has resulted in men using unhealthy tactics to cope with their feelings.”

Research shows that 33% of dads are stressed during the perinatal period, with the same amount of young fathers wanting support for their mental health, but finding there is nothing for them. Shockingly, fathers with perinatal mental health problems are 47 times more likely to be rated as a suicide risk than at any other time in their lives.

Steve Wright, 37, became a dad just before the first lockdown in early 2020 and found it difficult to know where to turn or how to access mental health services. Feeling very low, he found that even when raising his concerns with his GP, the focus was on his wife and their new baby. One desperate Friday night, he came across Dad Matters, set up to support dads in the perinatal period, in navigating parenting and getting access to services. “They didn’t tell me to ‘man up’,” he said. “They didn’t tell me to push through it or to beat my chest or scream into a pillow. They gave me practical advice and told me it was okay”.

Kieran Anders, Dad Matters Operations Manager, tells me that recently, he has seen dads becoming more involved in supportive services, actively looking for information and getting advice earlier about parenting, babies and supporting their partners. This is leading to more recognition of mental health issues in fathers, although there still is a gap in support, not least in part due to NHS waiting lists and constraints.

So, what can we do when mental health support for new dads is hard to access, and especially when our partners may have no history of poor mental health? Kieran advises watching for the warning signs and keeping communication open: “Dads sometimes use social media, or jokes about parenting as bravado to conceal other issues,” he said. “Talking is the best way to help dads feel better. Speaking in practical terms and being specific can really help us address those worries. Use direct questions like: ‘How was the birth for you?’, ‘Are you managing okay with the baby crying?’”

He also recommends keeping the baby in the centre of the conversation and involving dads from day one: “Learning about babies' needs, communication and development can really help dads to understand their role and importance.”

Luckily for us, it’s not too late to access support and help for William and I hope to work that much harder to support him throughout our pregnancy as much as he strives to support me. I’m so grateful that he felt able to open up and be honest about how he was feeling, rather than keeping it inside. For some, a little more encouragement may be needed . When most of the focus is on us as mothers and mothers-to-be, let’s not forget the partners next to us. It’s their baby, too.

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