Postpartum depression, a deep sadness far beyond the ordinary "baby blues," was once thought to be confined to new mothers. Now, it turns out, it's estimated to occur in 4 to 20 percent of fathers, as well. In recognition of dads who experience depressive symptoms after the birth of a baby, paternal postnatal depression (PPND), also known as or paternal postpartum depression, has found a place in medical literature. Some experts call PPND an "under screened, under diagnosed, and under treated" condition.
"For a long time, people focused on only mothers," says Emily Durbin, associate professor at the Michigan State University Department of Psychology. Durbin is connected with MSU's Child Emotions Lab and has been researching the effects of the moods of moms and dads on families since 2005. "It's a stressful period in life for both mother and father," she adds.
A recent study published online in Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians, found that new dads are more likely to experience PPND during the first five years of their child's life. This is a cause for concern among a growing number of health professionals, since untreated PPND limits a man's ability to give support to his family.
"We're finding that depressed father can have negative consequences for children, similar to those of depressed mothers," Durbin says.
Children of parents with psychiatric disorders are at increased risk of disorder themselves, as well as other developmental difficulties. Having a depressed dad is associated with an increased risk of behavior problems, particularly for boys.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, PPND during the child's early development is "associated significantly" with poor behavior in children. A diagnosis of PPND during the first eight weeks of the baby's life is strongly associated with a psychiatric diagnosis in children at 7 years old.
Fathers with depression can have a negative effect on mother-child interactions, and depressed dads are less likely to play outdoors with their children. On the other hand, fathers with good mental health have been shown to reduce the effects of a mother's depression on their child.
According to the CDC:
- Approximately 4 percent of fathers experience depression in the first year of their child's life.
- By a child's 12th birthday, 20 percent of fathers will have experienced one or more episodes of depression.
"Depression can be common in early childhood in both mothers and fathers," Durbin says. "Men with small children have higher depression rates than men who do not have children."
In addition, a child who has two depressed parents is associated with a 1 in 4 chance of having emotional or behavioral problems. In homes where only the father was depressed, 11 percent of children will develop problems, and where only the mother had symptoms, the rate among children was 19 percent. Children who do not have depressed parents have a 6 percent rate of emotional or behavior problems.
What puts men at risk for PPND?
Aside from becoming a father at a young age, some of the things research suggests that increase a father's chances of PPND include:
- Low income or poverty
- Past history of depression
- Poor physical health
- Living with a mother who has postpartum depression
- Having a child with special needs
- Black and Hispanic fathers showed higher levels of depressive symptoms compared with white fathers
Overall, researchers have found that unemployed dads are associated with the highest rates of PPND.
Identifying at-risk fathers based on social factors and designing effective interventions may ultimately improve health outcomes for the entire family.
"There are many effective treatments," Durbin says. However, she points out that before moving to medications or psychotherapy, there are other options to try.
"More social support can be helpful," she says. "Sometimes, fathers aren't sure what their role is. Talking to other men who are fathers can have a good effect."
For dads looking for more information and support, Postpartum Support International PSI is built on the foundation of providing support to families and offers free and anonymous postpartum depression information. Or, stop by PostPartumMen.com, which is a website devoted to helping depressed dads.