The men who find the transition to fatherhood most difficult

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

The transition into fatherhood is a difficult one and a recent study has found that men with pre-existing mental health conditions are four times more likely to struggle.

In a world first, researchers from Murdoch Children's Research Institute have tracked men from their teen years into fatherhood to assess their mental health.

Participants completed a series of questionnaires and were interviewed over a period of 20-plus years.

They found that men with a history of adolescent and young adult mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, were more than four times more likely to experience mental health problems during their partner's pregnancy.

Previous research showed that one in ten men, regardless of their previous mental health history, experienced mental health problems during their partner's pregnancy.

Lead author, MCRI researcher Elizabeth Spry said becoming a father could be a difficult process for men who have already struggled with mental health issues.

"Dads' mental health problems are common and distressing for both men and their families," she said.

"Knowing who is most likely to experience mental health problems in the transition to parenthood will help us to provide support and treatment for those who need it the most."

Published in 2018 in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, the study used data from a 20-year, two-generation study that assessed common mental health problems from age 14-29 years, and then in the third trimester of subsequent pregnancies to age 35 years.

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The study revealed that for a majority of new fathers, mental health problems during a partner's pregnancy were a continuation of similar problems experienced earlier in life and continued after the birth of their children.

Ms Spry said much of the focus prior to, during and post-pregnancy was aimed at women and there needed to be more support for men during this transition, particularly in the lead-up to the actual birth.

"Men have been largely neglected prior to pregnancy. There is absolutely not enough information available to them," she said.

"What we are seeing is that both men and women's mental health can have a direct and equal impact on their children.

"Early intervention supporting men will be really important for the entire family."

She said when father's were struggling with their own mental health problems it impacted on the whole family unit, and as their babies grow older they too were at risk of emotional and behavioural problems. And with that in mind, researchers were continuing their study, with the same participants and their children, to assess what those impacts may be in the longer term.

Perinatal psychiatrist and fatherhood clinician Dr Matthew Roberts agreed more support structures were needed to help fathers and a deeper understanding of "what guys go through in becoming fathers" was needed.

"It's the steepest learning curve in adult life – the rules change completely when a kid comes along," Dr Roberts said.

And ensuring fathers are not only coping, but thriving in their role will help the whole family.

"If you want to help a baby you need to ensure you help everyone in the household - it's a maternal health initiative to screen dads too," he said.

"A general cultural shift, awareness and mindfulness of what men are going through also helps the mums."

He advised dads take measures to ensure they're well supported throughout the transition such as; negotiating more flexibility in the workplace, researching what impacts baby's have on emotional wellbeing and relationships, and reaching out to others.

"Get informed and get connected – both online and face-to-face," he said.

"If dads get connected earlier on so they're not so isolated it helps them feel a lot better about fatherhood.

"Find people to walk the journey with you so you're not alone."

If you think you, or someone you know, might be experiencing depression please seek help from a medical professional or call Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

For additional support, new dads should check out: https://healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au/pregnancy-and-new-parents/dadvice-for-new-dads