Every year, the day after Father’s Day, is International Fathers Mental Health Day. Founded by Mark Williams, who himself experienced paternal postpartum depression, and mental health expert Dr Daniel Singley, the day aims to highlight key aspects of mental health in dads and share helpful resources for the dads themselves, plus their partners and those who support them.
Men have mental health – now let’s talk about it
Encouraged by prominent figures such as Prince William or sports stars like Michael Phelps (even Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has recently spoken about his mental health), men are talking more than ever about how they’re feeling and why it’s “okay not to be okay”.
However, and it’s a big however, there is still a major problem and a long long way to go in the fight to remove the stigma around male mental health. It’s well known that suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 20-49 in the UK, and that’s quite frankly unacceptable. Having been personally affected, sadly more than once, by male suicide, I am passionate about changing that and I truly believe that starts with talking.
In terms of postnatal depression in dads, it’s a lot more common than you would think. One in ten men will experience paternal postpartum depression (this increases to 50% of men when the mum is experiencing postnatal depression*), but up to ‘18% can experience anxiety’**. And that’s just those who are diagnosed. I’m sure the numbers are much higher.
However, as Mark states, “The stigma against experiencing difficulties in early parenthood is even higher for men than for women. Society views men as stoic, self-sacrificing, and above all, strong. When men feel none of those things as new fathers, they don’t want to admit it or seek help.”
Sometimes it can all just feel a bit much
I’ll start by saying I know I’m one of the fortunate ones. My mental health ‘wobble’ was a small one compared to others, but it was also incredibly scary to get a glimpse into what some people go through on a weekly, daily and hourly basis. I stared into the abyss for a very short period of time in comparison but leaning into the darkness was terrifying.
For me, it all started a couple of days after we got home from the hospital after the birth of our son Logan. Logan’s birth had been quite traumatic and resulted in him spending time in the neo-natal unit in the hospital. You can hear all about it in episode three of Poddy Training [LINK].
I truly believe my adrenaline got me through the week we were in hospital, but once we got home it couldn’t carry me anymore, and that’s when I started to feel incredibly low, and scared.
As Mark says above, I was supposed to be the strong one. My wife Lauren had just been through hell, physically and emotionally, yet I was the one feeling down. I couldn’t admit to that. What sort of husband…what sort of “man” would I be to put the focus on myself and try to claim I needed some help? Well, it turns out, a pretty good one actually.
For a couple of days I felt physically sick. I couldn’t eat. I felt cold. I would sneak off whenever I could and Google ‘postnatal depression in dads’ or ‘baby blues in dads’. All the search results were consistent with how I was feeling, which in some ways proved to be reassuring. But it was only when the guests all left, and Lauren and I sat down to talk about the previous seven days that it all came flooding out.
We talked. We cried. We hugged. We talked some more. And instantly I felt better. It was genuinely like a cloud had been lifted and I felt like myself again. The next day I woke with a spring in my step and we had an amazing week as a new family.
That good mood lasted about 12 months when out of the blue it manifested itself again, this time as anxiety.
No different to addressing your physical health
I knew something was wrong, and I suspected that speaking to a healthcare professional was a sensible idea. But one of the big emotions I experienced was embarrassment. I didn’t need help or therapy! I’ve always been incredibly positive, and the person people came to for help, and now suddenly I was faced with admitting I was the one who needed help.
But I had a ‘lightbulb moment’, and it came when I equated mental health with physical health. No one would bat an eyelid if you told them you were going to proactively look after your physical health. If you realised you were putting on a bit of extra weight and started eating a bit better or signed up to a gym or personal trainer before it became a real issue, people would applaud you. So, what’s the difference if you proactively seek to strengthen your mental health before it becomes a major issue? What is you were signing up to a mental health gym or a personal ‘mental health’ trainer?
That was the thought I personally needed to act. I then made some calls and before I knew it I’d found the wonderful Lyn Voce, a woman I cannot speak highly enough of. Lyn specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT.
With her coming from a military background and working with services such as the police force, her approach was perfect for me as she was blunt and sometimes brutal, but ultimately she didn’t beat around the bush when it came to helping me.
Lyn identified some ‘unprocessed’ memories that were causing me problems and diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD). She brilliantly explained that your brain subconsciously processes literally millions of bits of information every second. The brain takes these ‘bits’, processes them and then files them in the back of your mind. When you experience trauma, that ‘packet’ of information is sometimes too big to make its way through the processing system, so it gets stuck, unprocessed and unfiled. That’s when the problems begin.
So, we sat and talked about Logan’s birth, and amazingly there were details emerging that I hadn’t ever remembered before. They upset me talking about them, and that was a clear sign they hadn’t been processed, but by going through them and dealing with them my mind was able to make peace and move on. Filed. Saved. Processed.
(I must add at this point that the flipside of Lyn working with the army and other services meant I also experienced guilt that my PTSD was nothing compared to what these men and women go through, but Lyn reminded me it’s all about context. What is traumatic for one person might not be for another, but that doesn’t mean it’s not any less valid. As I said, I can’t speak highly enough of this woman).
For me it only took a few sessions to work through what I needed to get my mental health back in shape. For some it takes longer, and it might be a lifetime battle (just like physical fitness is for some people), but now I have more tools in my arsenal to deal with my emotions if they ever start working against me. That’s the joy of CBT, it’s pragmatic and designed to help you recognise problems and work through them. But at the same time, I also now know where I can get help if and when I need it again.
Since I had therapy, I’ve actually become proud of the fact. It felt strange admitting it to people at first, but actually the love and respect I’ve had from the people I’ve told has been overwhelming, and I’ve now recommended it to other people who have bitten the bullet and are advocates as well. More men are going through therapy than ever before, and that’s a good thing. We’re talking. We’re addressing our mental health. And the more we do that, the more we’ll stop men suffering, or stop families falling apart or stop male suicides. And that’s a very good thing.
Whilst you might not experience any mental health issues yourself, and I really hope that is the case, you may know someone who does, and that’s why I think every dad should know about International Fathers Mental Health Day.
You can listen to Jonathan’s birth experience in episode four of Poddy Training, and we have plans to discuss his long-term mental health and his experiences of therapy in future episodes. You can also get more information about International Fathers Mental Health Day, and Mark’s amazing work, at https://www.reachingoutpmh.co.uk/ and use the hashtag #HowAreYouDad to find useful and insightful resources on social media.
If you think you may be suffering from paternal postpartum depression you should seek professional help as soon as possible. There are some great resources online and details of helplines are featured on the NHS website, which is a great place for all sorts of advice and guidance.