One in three women suffer from Perinatal Distress (PND) in our country, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). But the terrifying truth is that it’s not just the women who suffer; it’s often their partners who take strain, even to the point of being diagnosed with PND themselves.
Women’s hormones undergo major changes during and after pregnancy, but they’re not the only ones. The lack of sleep and increased stress that new fathers experience can also take a toll on their bodies, creating real hormonal shifts that are often overlooked. Craig*, whose wife Claire* was diagnosed with PND soon after the birth of their first child, began to feel off kilter around the same time, but “everyone was so concerned with Claire, nobody even asked me how I was doing.” Because Claire wasn’t coping, Craig felt added pressure to take on extra duties with the baby and around the house – on top of maintaining a full-time job. He “somehow muscled through” those first few difficult weeks, which turned into months before he realised how severely it had affected him.
Real men do cry
At the end of his rope, Craig realised he had to do something about his situation. He reached out to a friend, who suggested he see a doctor. Through a combination of medical support, psychological therapy, and practical assistance (in the form of family, friends and a night nurse), Craig made a full recovery and is the happy husband and father he always dreamed of being. “It was the darkest and scariest period of my life,” he confesses. “Sometimes I’m not even sure how I made it through, but I am so glad that I did.”
Not only is it unhelpful to bottle up emotions instead of working through them in a healthy way, it also sets an unrealistic and unhealthy example for older children and others who look up to you as a male role model. Like all humans, men experience a range of feelings triggered by both hormones and environmental factors, and by reaching out for help, you are doing the best thing for yourself, your family, and for society in general.
Each father is an individual, but there are broad factors that may place someone at added risk of developing PND. These include a personal or family history of mental illness, a strained relationship with the mother of the child, or difficulties with the child – this could be anything from colic to serious medical conditions that induce additional stress and/or concern. Financial pressure, problems at work and feeling unsupported (not having a circle of family or friends to confide in) can also increase the risk. Single fathers are also at added risk.
However, perhaps the biggest risk factor is that so many cases of paternal PND go undiagnosed (or are diagnosed too late, once major damage has already been done) because the condition is not acknowledged or accepted as a legitimate illness. “Let me tell you, it is real!” implores Craig.
It’s essential that every new and expectant dad ensure he has the support of at least a few key friends or family members who can be a shoulder to lean on and, occasionally, a pair of hands to hold the baby. Further, we as a society need to update our mindset when it comes to supporting new and growing families. “People always ask how the baby is,” Craig points out. “Sometimes they ask how the mother is doing. But nobody ever asks the dad.”
A family affair
Treatment of the mother is important but should not be in isolation from treatment of the family as a unit. Some doctors are reluctant to include fathers in the treatment plan for PND or even to talk to them about it, because of concerns about breeching doctor-patient confidentiality. This further disempowers fathers from helping to heal the family unit as a whole. It’s crucial to find a healthcare practitioner that sees and treats new and expectant families together (this, of course, includes a broad range of family structures including unmarried partners, same-sex families, adoptive parents and single-parents with their own unique support structures).
Don’t live in denial
Craig’s advice for dads struggling with PND? “It doesn’t matter how you got here. It doesn’t matter what you think of mental illness. It does matter that you are here. It does matter that your partner needs kindness and the way to provide that is to accept that you are here. Then act.”
You heard the man! Make that call. Take that first step. You – and your family – deserve it.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.