Postnatal depression in men still not recognised, new study

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

A new study has found that people are almost twice as likely to correctly identify signs of postnatal depression in women than in men.

"Postnatal depression (PND) affects between 6 and 13 per cent of new parents, but only a small proportion of individuals who meet diagnostic criteria receive optimal treatment," the authors write in their study, published in the Journal of Mental Health.

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University gave 406 British adults case studies describing either maternal or paternal postnatal depression. Participants were asked to report if they thought there was anything wrong with the people described and, if so, what.

Study participants of both sexes were less likely to say that there was something wrong with the male, compared to the female. Of those who identified that something was amiss, 90 per cent correctly identified the female as experiencing PND while only 46 per cent did so for the father.

The participants commonly believed that the man was suffering from stress or tiredness. In fact, stress was chosen 21 per cent of the time for the man compared to only 0.5 per cent for the woman, despite identical symptoms.

When it comes to fathers, stigma still abounds.

Findings also revealed that attitudes were significantly more negative towards the fathers' experience than the mothers'. Participants expressed less sympathy for males than females, believed that the male's condition would be easier to treat and were less likely to suggest that the male seek help and support.

 "Our findings suggest that the British public are significantly more likely to believe that something is 'wrong' when seeing a woman displaying the symptoms of postnatal depression, and they are also far more likely to correctly label the condition as postnatal depression," said lead author Professor Viren Swami.

So why might that be the case?

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"It is possible that general awareness of paternal postnatal depression still remains relatively low and there might be a perception among the British public that postnatal depression is a 'women's issue' due to gender-specific factors such as pregnancy-induced hormonal changes and delivery complications," Professor Swami explained.

"What is clear is that much more can be done to promote better understanding of paternal postnatal depression, so people don't brush it off as simply tiredness or stress. This is particularly important as many men who experience symptoms of depression following the birth of their child may not be confident about asking for help and may be missed by healthcare professionals in the routine assessments of new parents."

But while the study uses British data, Dr Nicole Highet, founder and executive director of the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) says it's a similar story here. "The study highlights a number of factors that are central to COPE's work in Australia," Dr Highet says, explaining that in Australia, there's also a lower "mental health literacy surrounding perinatal mental health issues amongst expectant and new dads".

"Being aware of emotional mental health and the possible symptoms of common mental health disorders is key in the early identification of symptoms and help-seeking," she says.

The findings come as the organisation releases the Ready to COPE guide for dads, enabling expectant and new fathers to sign up to receive free, regular information to raise awareness of emotional mental health when becoming a dad, provide strategies to help manage stress, and identify and seek help should symptoms arise.

"Our research, and that of others in Australia, has consistently shown that men often put the emotional needs of the mother and infant first, and maintain that they have to be the strong one and 'hold it all together' for their family.  However, this has the potential to mean symptoms are not identified, and men reach crisis point before seeking help."

As a result, Dr Highet says COPE is also currently working with governments to make screening available for fathers. "COPE has developed an innovative digital screening solution (iCOPE) to enable health professionals to not only accurately assess the risk and likelihood that a parent may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, but also empower the parent with personal information and insights about their own mental health.

How do you identify PND in fathers? According to PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia), signs and symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression include:

  • Constant tiredness or exhaustion
  • Ongoing headache. High physical stress levels e.g. muscle tension
  • Loss of interest in things that were once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep problems (unrelated to baby's sleep)
  • Ongoing irritability, anger or moodiness
  • Emotional withdrawal from your partner, baby, family, friends
  • Fear of looking after your baby
  • Not wanting to communicate with your partner, family and friends
  • Feeling isolated
  • Using alcohol or drugs to 'escape' or cope
  • Thoughts of suicide.

SIgn up to COPE's Ready to COPE emails here 

Contact PANDA's National Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Helpline on 1300 726 306 9am – 7.30pm Mon – Fri (AEST/AEDT) or visit How is Dad Going?

Lifeline 13 11 14