A Thief Ignored: Paternal Postpartum Depression

Click here to view an excerpt from Good Morning America on Paternal Postpartum Depression

It had been two weeks since I started medication and two months since I started therapy. The world was beginning to look a little less blurry, and my role as mother was beginning to become not only palpable, but enjoyable. It was as if I was experiencing the newborn fuzzy feelings people told me about, despite the fact that my baby was nearly 9 months old. I was grieving the loss of those 9 months, but I was so excited to be in a different place mentally.

Yet something still was not quite right.

Though everything else in my world seemed to be bouncing back to normal, one of the most precious parts of my world remained broken: My husband.

I’ll never forget sitting in a parking lot with him late at night. We were supposed to be at a romantic dinner, but we couldn’t quite make that work. Something was not right. We were not connecting.

We sat in the parking lot and both cried for a long hour. I listened to him spill out his frustrations with his role as father, financial provider, and partner. Hearing him utter words that pointed toward thoughts of self-harm and self-hate left me feeling confused and greatly saddened.

He had lost weight, he was not sleeping, he was working countless hours, his mind and limited energy were constantly funneled into household chores and tasks, he was irritable and so angry about our experience as new parents with a colicky baby.

This was not the Ryan I had known for nearly 17 years.

Just when I thought life was returning to normal, I found that it was not. As the fog lifted in my own world and I was able to clearly see the experience of my husband, I realized that he actually had what seemed to be postpartum depression.

Being a mental health nerd and a concerned wife, I buried myself in the Internet and DSM searching for resources and information for him. And in doing so, I stumbled upon Paternal Postpartum Depression: a condition that steals life from men every single day, and is hardly ever discussed. In fact, no formal diagnostic criteria exists.

I was baffled, angry, frustrated, and annoyed.

How could it be that I had never heard of this? I spent years in school studying mental health, and years practicing therapy, and yet – I had never read of this condition. Ryan was never offered screening for this illness, as I was for PPD. I felt the system had failed him. And so I became rather passionate about PPPD because of how it has impacted my husband, and how it steals from families every single day simply because it is not publicly discussed.

When asked if he could write an excerpt on his experience with PPPD Ryan said,

“I don’t know how. I mean, this thing hit me hard. I’m still trying to climb out in many ways. I’m still trying to process it all, even with therapy and the help of community. I’m still trying to forgive myself for feeling this way, yet I know it’s okay to have these feelings. It is all still blurry for me and hard to talk about. This illness runs deep and is not easy to walk through much less share openly about simply because I do not have words to articulate where I’ve been mentally…”

Research shows that 10% of new dads show signs of postpartum depression.

In fact, new dads are more than twice as likely to experience depression when compared to the general adult male population.

3,000 new dads a day in the United States become newly depressed during the postpartum period.

The rate of suicide among men ages 30-44 years increases around the time of becoming a father.

Currently, the diagnostic definition we have for PPPD is the definition used to identify PPD in mothers.

Symptoms of PPPD Include:

  • Inability to sleep or too much sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Severe weight gain or loss
  • Unexplained anger
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Inability to concentrate

Rather than sadness, PPPD may manifest itself through irritability, aggressiveness and hostility. Often these new dads with depression tend to distract themselves through social media, video games, and “projects.”

Women are not the only ones who experience hormonal shifts in the perinatal period. Science shows that men actually experience an increase in estrogen and a lowering of testosterone after their new baby arrives. Biologists believe this is in order to keep men close by the mother and baby during the postnatal period. Furthermore, low cortisol, low vasopressin/oxytocin, and low prolactin levels are shown to contribute to postpartum depression in men.

Another risk factor for men in experiencing PPPD is if his partner is also experiencing PPD. A recent study shows fathers whose partners have PPD are 2.5 times more likely to experience postpartum depression themselves.

Research also shows other possible risk factors for fathers having PPPD include economic problems, lack of sleep, poor relationship with family, or having a baby with colic or special needs. Fathers who feel trapped or overburdened, who feel overwhelmed by increased financial responsibility, who feel outside the circle of attention, who feel disconnected from mother/baby bonding, and who miss the sexual relationship, are at a heightened risk for experiencing postpartum depression.

Many of these men feel like a disappointment, a failure, or ashamed. They feel like they lack a fatherhood gene, and, in serious cases, men with PPPD feel their family and the world would be better off without them.

Paternal postpartum depression can damage an infant’s cognitive, emotional and social development.  The potential for depression to impact the infant is heightened when both parents are experiencing the illness. This disease can also wreak havoc on attachment, an important part of development during the baby’s first year.

Literature also suggests PPPD can contribute to violent behaviors, with as many as 25% of new mothers reporting violence from their partner during the postpartum period. Nearly 70% of those acts of violence were first time occurrences during the first year after a baby’s birth. Though this violence is a reality for many families, we never experienced this particular affect of PPPD. Ryan never became violent. But this violence is common and certainly isn’t reserved for members of certain demographics.

Because men’s depression can look so different than depression in women, it is critical that we educate ourselves on PPPD symptoms and risk factors. We need to give dads permission to have these feelings, and encourage them to talk about them openly.By normalizing this diagnosis, more men may be willing to access help, which can be critical for saving marriages and protecting children.

Given the impact this illness has on men’s ability to live their best life, and the negative affects PPPD has on their marriages and their children, it is critical that we talk about this condition openly and without shame.

In an ever-changing society where the roles of both mothers and fathers are evolving, we need to move past the damaging “man-up” philosophies that cause men to sweep life threatening thoughts and feelings under the rug, and be real about these emotions that destroy marriages, steal life from their souls, and cause many to ponder unthinkable acts of self-harm.

If you are a father who is experiencing unexpected feelings after the birth of your baby – know that you are not alone! You are not a bad dad. You are not a disappointment. And you do not need to be ashamed.

It is most common for these feelings to surface between 3-6 months postpartum, though they may manifest themselves sooner. Do not allow this illness to steal from you during this season! Get help as soon as possible. PPPD is a real medical condition that is treatable.

Interventions include:

  • Talk Therapy
  • Medications
  • Support Groups

Men can click here to access a screening tool for PPPD. Note that though this is the same EPDS screening distributed to women, the directions are different than the one issued to women! Please consult a mental health professional to address the results of this screening tool.

God is good, and Ryan and I were able to receive the support and the help we needed to access healing and recovery early on in our journey through postpartum depression. As a result, our bond with one another and with Summer has been safeguarded and strengthened. We praise God every day that He intervened, opened our eyes, and protected our attachments to one another and our baby.

We believe God’s desire for other men and women struggling with postpartum mood disorders is wholeness and healing. God can use this for good. He can provide tools for healing that strengthen families. He delights in safeguarding our connections to one another through the process of healing and growing. We encourage dads and mamas who are struggling to speak up and seek help quickly! Do not wait. 

Resources for Dads:

Call Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773 and leave a message requesting phone numbers for counselors that can help with paternal postpartum depression.

A helpful article for men experiencing PPPD

Television Broadcast Specials about PPPD

General resources for men with PPPD

A community forum of men experiencing PPPD

PSI’s chat with an expert specifically for dads   – chat with an expert first Monday of every month, 7PM central time call 1-800-944-8766, the code is 73162#. More specific directions provided at link provided.

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