This morning I had the misfortune of stumbling upon an article in the Guardian, entitled “Postnatally depressed dads? – Give me a break”. The purpose of the article, written by Barbara Ellen, was, I think, to criticise the use of the term “PND” to describe the symptoms some men experience after the birth of a child. However, she was also particularly dismissive of men who experience depression postnatally, using terms such as “Pissed off, knackered and yearning to be carefree again” and “exhausting narcissists” and “men incapable of hiding their sulky self-absorption”.
I don’t intend to argue the rights and wrongs of using the label of “Postnatal Depression” to describe depression in new fathers. According to the NHS website, Postnatal depression is only clinically defined for women, not for men, though of course anyone can experience depression, whether as a response to parenthood or not.
I certainly don’t want to minimise some women’s experience of postnatal depression, particularly the more extreme forms, which can be absolutely terrifying. But does the fact that only women experience PND mean that we should be dismissive of the depression experienced by proportion of new fathers? Of course not.
A degree of depression is a natural response to any loss, and there are losses to be grieved by both partners after childbirth, as they adjust to parenthood. A man may grieve the loss of freedom, loss of attention from his partner, the temporary loss of his sex life, the loss of financial security if his partner has finished work. He may feel the pressure of responsibility for the child, of expectations to be a strong and supportive provider for his partner as well as a hands-on father, when really he feels like emigrating to get away from this screaming bundle of helplessness that deprives him of sleep. He may feel extremely guilty and cowardly for feeling the desire to run away from it all, when he believes he “should” be excited and joyful about the new arrival. Sometimes, becoming a father triggers unresolved childhood issues relating to his own father, which exacerbates the depression even more. Not knowing how to cope with it all, he may have thoughts of suicide.
What are the consequences of ill-considered articles in respected newspapers, that dismiss these thoughts and feelings as “self-absorption”? Don’t such messages reinforce the unhelpful gender stereotype that men are weak if they have feelings? Don’t they also hinder the natural adjustment to parenthood that might take place if the man accepted his feelings as normal? Don’t they put men off seeking help when they really need it?
My experience of working with men struggling with their new role is that where they believe it is unacceptable to express how they feel, they can become irritable, frustrated, aggressive and/or suicidal, which is damaging to their new family as well as to themselves.
Come on, Ms Ellen, if you have no experience of mental health issues, either do your research or write on a subject you know something about. Anything less is just irresponsible and lazy journalism, not worthy of the Guardian.
To any men struggling with depression following the birth of a child: it is not weak to ask for help. It’s not your fault that you weren’t fully prepared for the upheaval of bringing a child into the world. Counselling can help you to understand, accept and process your feelings and learn how to discuss them with your partner in a constructive way, resulting in a restoration of openness and intimacy between you.