Postpartum depression is recognized and understood today more than ever before, thanks to advances in research and public awareness campaigns. While the stigma around the disorder isn’t entirely gone, many new moms who might have once suffered in silence are reaching out for help—and speaking out about their experiences.
But women aren't the only group that can be affected by postpartum depression: New dads can struggle with it too. Fathers don’t suffer from depression in the same way, or at the same rates, as new moms, so it makes sense that most of the attention would be paid to women. But a new study sheds some light on just how many men may have it, and some of the reasons why.
The research, published today in JAMA Psychiatry, examined depression screenings of 3,532 men in New Zealand both during and after their partners’ pregnancies. About 2.3% of the men had elevated depression symptoms during their partners’ third trimesters, and that number rose to 4.3% when their babies were nine months old.
These rates are lower than those of postpartum depression in women, which the authors previously reported at 8% in New Zealand. (In the United States, it’s estimated to affect between 11% and 20% of new mothers.) And they’re not much different from the rate of depression in the general population. The authors note that about 2.6% of men have had a depressive episode in the past year.
But the findings do highlight a very real phenomenon that’s often not included in conversations about mental health during major life events, says Gail Saltz, MD, Health’s contributing psychology editor and author of The Power of Different.
For women, postpartum depression can be caused—at least in part—by hormonal, chemical, and biological changes that go along with pregnancy and childbirth. This isn’t the case with men, says Dr. Saltz, but it can still be a vulnerable time for them.
“Joyful events, like having a baby, can still be stressful for everyone involved,” says Dr. Saltz. “There’s the added feeling of responsibility, of being a provider, the changes in your relationship dynamic. And when the baby is born, you both have sleep deprivation on top of that.” These things can add up, she says, and they can pile on to other stressors that already exist in a man’s life.
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The new study found that men who were depressed during their partners’ pregnancies were more likely to report poor health and high levels of stress. Men who were depressed after the birth of their babies were also more likely to report that they were unemployed and no longer in a relationship with their partner by the time their babies were nine months old.
The study authors point out that, while new mothers in New Zealand are assessed for postpartum depression, there’s no recommendation for new fathers. In the U.S., the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology also recommends that women be screened at least once during the perinatal period.
“Discussing the risks of depression with expectant mothers and fathers would provide information about where to seek help and social support should one of them develop symptoms,” the authors wrote. “Our studies suggest that family and couple-based interventions that focus on improving relationship quality and alleviating stress in both men and women may benefit those at risk.”
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Dr. Saltz agrees. “New parents do experience depression and anxiety at pretty good rates, and we should all try to be aware of the signs and symptoms for ourselves and for our loved ones,” she says. “You may be able to see what’s going on with someone when they can’t see themselves.”
It’s also important that new mothers and fathers are open to seeking help when needed. “Treatment does work, and it can get you back on track,” says Dr. Saltz. “And that’s especially important when you have a new baby to take care of.”