How to spot the unique signs of depression in men and new fathers.
Depression is a common mental health issue. Postpartum depression/anxiety (PPD/A) in women, a common and often undiagnosed illness in biological, adoptive, or lesbian partner moms, has finally gained greater awareness by mental health professionals, obstetricians, and the general public. While many women still suffer in silence, recent efforts have given PPD sufferers a voice. There is no shame, there is no need to hide. PPD/A is a mental health issue and one over which the sufferer has no control. I know. I had PPD/A after my second child. It hit me a few weeks into his life, and it hit hard. It’s not just depression or sadness, symptoms can include anxiety, rage, intrusive thoughts, OCD behavior, and more. When I had it, I was overwhelmed by anxiety. I was also depressed, but the anxiety was debilitating. I thought I would perish. I thought my baby would perish. I was terrified. But, I told my doctor, I was heard, and I got help. I survived.
Men suffer too, and more attention is needed to understand how they suffer, and how men respond to treatment. Depression knows no gender, including postnatal depression. Researchers are still in the early stages of understanding the male experience with depression; paternal postnatal depression (PPND), research lags further behind. Men experience depression differently than women and we know that men are more likely to hide depression and/or to withdraw which only serves to worsen symptoms. PPND research suggests men may develop symptoms more gradually over the course of a child’s first year, while typically, but not always, women see symptoms earlier.
The classic symptoms of depression are well known and include: depressed mood; significant weight gain or loss; restlessness; fatigue; insomnia or sleeping too much; feelings of worthlessness; difficulty with decision-making; and thoughts of suicide or death. To be diagnosed as clinically depressed, a patient must suffer from five or more of these symptoms consistently over a two week period. Depression is not “having a bad day.” Depression can be paralyzing, frightening, and interfere with one’s ability to perform daily tasks. Simply getting out of bed, showering, and getting dressed are often impossible for a depressed person. When I was in the throes of PPD/A, I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep, I was physically ill with anxiety, and even simple decisions, such as what to have for lunch, felt insurmountable.
In men, depression looks and feels different, and that can lead to both under-diagnosis and to men hiding their suffering. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), on an annual basis, over six million men currently suffer from depression. That’s you, or your partner, or your best friend. Have you noticed a change in behavior lately in a loved one? Symptoms you might see include: increased anger; increased drinking or drug use; irritability; violence; weight loss; isolation; stress; greater risk-taking such as reckless driving or adultery; physical problems such as frequent headaches; loss of interest in sex, hobbies and family; over-working; and suicidal thoughts. While there are a few common symptoms, men clearly experience distinctly different symptoms. Based on typical depictions of depression, it would be easy to overlook increased drinking, adultery, and over-working as depressed behavior. If you are a new father, these symptoms may be gradual, but PPND can be as serious a condition as PPD/A, with some or most of these symptoms.
When you are the depressed person, all perspective is lost. Self-diagnosis is difficult, particularly if this is your first depressive episode. It is important to watch for changes in mood or behavior, particularly if you or your partner has just had or adopted a baby. Depression is a serious illness and can be fatal. In addition to the symptoms above, here are specific behaviors to look for in yourself or your partner:
You (or your partner) withdraws sexually. Often after childbirth there is a hiatus in the bedroom. You’re tired, mom is tired and yet the baby seems to never be tired, at least for very long. In the early days, sex may not be an issue; sleep may trump a roll in the hay. However, after the so-called fourth trimester, when couples get the doctor’s go ahead to resume sexual activity, if you find your interest dramatically decreased and if you resist intimacy with your partner and feel isolated as a result, that may be cause for concern.
You find yourself having an extra drink or two on a more regular basis. If you are a semi-regular drinker who is now having a beer or three with dinner and/or a Scotch before bed, you may be suffering from depression. Along the same lines, if you are a recreational drug user, or have been in the past, and you begin to seek opportunities to get high regularly, you are checking out of your reality. As a new father, this behavior would be especially troubling and cause for concern. Your faculties are compromised at a time when you need to be more available than ever. While this behavior seems simply irresponsible on the surface, when accompanied by other symptoms, it may be male depression.
You work. All the time. Suddenly, staying late at the office becomes the norm. For a new father, this would be an especially noticeable symptom. Most new dads want to bond with their baby. If you are voluntarily over-working without an objective increase in work load, ask yourself why? If you are in a relationship with someone who suddenly and without apparent reason becomes a workaholic, take note. He may be depressed.
Irritability is common when there is a new baby in the house. Typically, parents are not getting enough sleep and/or are worried about baby’s milestones. Is he rolling over yet? Did she smile or was that gas? Is my baby OK?! When your irritability becomes anger, constant and overwhelming, this can be a warning sign. It’s normal to be grumpy when you are tired. It’s not healthy to be in a constant state of heightened tension. If you see this in yourself or your partner, and feel like you are walking on eggshells, it may be depression. Tread lightly and with compassion.
Depression is an illness, and there is no shame in seeking treatment. If you had a broken arm, you’d see a doctor, you’d get a cast, you’d heal. The same should be true with any mental health issue. If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering, get help. You are not alone.
Contact your doctor, a mental health facility or check these on-line resources for more information: