Help for fathers struggling with PND

Aid: Noel Burgess with Rose and Charlie.
Aid: Noel Burgess with Rose and Charlie. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

It was 2.30am when Noel Burgess found himself in tears on the phone to a parent helpline. He'd hit breaking point after going almost a fortnight on no more than three hours sleep a day in half-hour blocks because his baby son Charlie was sick and not sleeping.

"I'm sitting here, he's in tears, I'm the only one and I have no idea what to do," Mr Burgess, who was the primary carer while his wife worked, recalls. "It was quite a shock to find myself [thinking], 'I don't know what to do, I can't see any way out of this.' It was very alarming."

Making matters worse, Mr Burgess couldn't find any help for new fathers. The specialist baby sleep clinic where the family sought help offered counselling only to mothers, and the nurse at the baby health check-up was interested only in how his wife was coping.

"It was every man for themselves," Mr Burgess said. "It was incredibly isolating."

Now there is a growing recognition it is just as important to monitor the mental health of new fathers as new mothers.

For fathers there are quite often issues of stigma and embarrassment ... They don't want to tell their mates they feel hopeless.

Richard Fletcher

This week, the Post and Antenatal Depression Association (PANDA) launches, targeting men to recognise their symptoms of antenatal and post-natal depression.

One in seven fathers will have a partner with post-natal depression and one in 20 fathers will suffer post-natal depression themselves. But with more couples taking turns being the primary carer so both parents can remain in the workforce, and more babies being born, even more men are at risk.

Yet few fathers feel comfortable admitting they're failing.

"For fathers there are quite often issues of stigma and embarrassment," said Richard Fletcher, from the University of Newcastle's Family Research Centre. "They don't want to tell their mates they feel hopeless." Dr Fletcher is developing a national screening program for men to identify those struggling after the birth of a baby.

Social worker Timothy O'Leary, who works with new fathers, said the lack of resources for male post-natal depression had been an "aching gap".

The How is Dad Going? site is one of the first in the world to target men specifically and aims to show men support is available. "They don't have to soldier on or work harder to manage all the demands at this time, when perhaps they are feeling terrible themselves," PANDA chief executive Belinda Horton said.

Dr Fletcher said that female PND sufferers tended to get "heavy limbed" and sad, while depressed men were more likely to be "twitchy" and have a short fuse. There is often a lag effect as well, with men developing PND as the baby gets older and the female partner becomes more confident mothering.