Unsure how to help? Mental health experts share sensitive & practical ways to support loved ones

Bringing home a newborn from hospital is, for many parents, one of the most overwhelming and upending times of their lives. For mums, the physical and emotional recovery – as well as finding a new normal – can be extremely tough, with postnatal depression affecting more than one in 10 women within a year of giving birth, according to the NHS.

However, it’s less well known that postnatal depression can also affect fathers. In fact, research by the National Childbirth Trust shows more than a third of new dads are worried about their mental health, with one in 10 developing postnatal depression*. The risk of depression continues after this time with a 68% increase in risk during the first five years of their child’s life**.

Psychotherapist Anna Mathur, who hosts podcast The Therapy Edit, believes there should be more focus on paternal mental health in that first year than there is currently. “For mothers, the postpartum phase is full of heightened hormones and physical recovery. How these things go can impact the bond between mother and baby, which is pertinent for the health of the baby, and thus much focus goes on this relationship,” explains Anna.

“Because of the primary focus being on the mother, the mental health of the father can go under the radar.”

There are many reasons a father’s mental health can suffer in this time, not least lack of sleep and the increased pressure that looking after a young baby can bring. Anna says that the internalised pressure on men to mask their emotions as a result of “generational and cultural pressure” means they are at risk of mental health problems across the board, not just in a postnatal setting.

“There is a desire to be the ‘strong’ one, to support the mother as she navigates the postpartum period,” says Anna, who adds that increased financial strain in the middle of the cost-of-living crisis will have an even bigger impact on fathers, some of whom will be returning to work after a shorter paternity leave than perhaps they would have liked – often because of financial constraints.

“I would argue the statistics about postnatal depression in fathers to be much higher, especially post-pandemic, and with the added pressures that come with rising bills and childcare costs. Fathers are also more likely to experience depression if their partner is depressed, or if they have a history of depression***.”

It’s important to spot problems before they get too serious and where to go for help if dads need it

Acknowledging changes

Charlotte Armitage, a psychologist and parenting expert, suggests that rather than focusing solely on the changes for the mother, it’s helpful to sit down and acknowledge how life has changed for both parents.

“Becoming a parent is a significant period of change for all involved, especially if it is the first child,” she says. “Parenthood brings changes in how we function; our relationships with friends, our partner, ourselves and even with our careers.

“This changing of priorities can have an impact on our identity and may cause distress for those unprepared for the changes happening in their lives. So, it’s important to keep an open dialogue about parenthood, how it’s impacting both parents and what can be done to help facilitate the transition into parenthood.”

Acknowledging that the early juggle between day job and newborn for fathers who return to work quickly is tough can be helpful, says Dr Hana Patel, GP specialist in women’s health and mindset coach. “It’s not unusual for new dads to be tired and stressed. Many muddle through, but some find it difficult to cope. It’s important to spot problems before they get too serious and where to go for help if dads need it.”

Families can create a “non-judgemental zone where men can feel open to speaking about their feelings”

The symptoms of paternal postnatal depression & how to help

So, how does paternal postnatal depression manifest itself? “Men don’t always show the classic symptoms of depression, such as persistent sadness or hopelessness,” says Chase Cassine, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. Instead, he advises looking out for “signs of anger, aggression, frustration and irritability.” Behavioural cues include: drinking, increased substance use, avoidance of family and social situations and overworking. 

And health visitors aren’t just there to support mum and baby. “Encourage dads to speak to the health visitor, or a doctor, about how they are feeling at any time,” says Dr Patel.

But opening up a dialogue with your partner is by far the most important thing you can do. “Communication is always the best way to offer support. If you feel your partner is struggling, talk to them. Explain you’ve recognised they don’t seem to be themselves and express your concern,” says Charlotte. “As a new parent yourself, you may not have the resources to manage their emotional distress, but you can direct them to a family member, friend or mental health professional.”

It’s also important that we invest in fathers and men in general – promoting the idea that it’s vital they care for themselves physically and mentally, especially in the face of a huge life change. Chase says families can create a “non-judgemental zone where men can feel open to speaking about their feelings.”

“Remind them that suffering in silence is not healthy or safe, check in on them, look out for changes in their behaviour and offer your support, listen and be patient,” he adds. Anna Mathur agrees that a safe space where behaviour and emotions can be discussed as a team is a great starting point and puts less onus on the father, which can create perceived pressure.

“Do an inventory together of the ‘health’ of different areas of your lives. Doing it together means you both get to evaluate your overall wellbeing and can feel more collaborative and less ‘we need to talk about you and your balance’,” says Anna. “How do you each feel about the health of your food and nutrition, movement, work, family, friendships, spirituality, caregiving? Or any other pertinent area of your life?”

“Men often prefer ‘side by side’ talking”

Forming connections – old & new

A return to “normal” often isn’t possible once you’ve had a baby, but helping one another return to parts of your old lives that you loved can bolster mental health.

Giving each other the space to socialise with friends – and each other sans baby (new parents often go from just the two of them most of the time to not having the time for each other) – is a good starting point, and can provide opportunities for men to open up organically, too.

“Men often prefer ‘side by side’ talking – talking that happens organically as a result of ‘doing’ something with another person, such as engaging in sport,” says Anna. “The primary focus is the activity they’re doing alongside the other person, and the conversation is almost secondary. It can feel less intense than the conversation that females may seek with one another.”

It might sound obvious, but forming a bond with their baby is also important for fathers, just as it is for mothers. “The more useful one feels, the more likely they are to engage in behaviours that nurture relationships,” says Charlotte. “Getting clued up on different milestones and tips and tools that aid development can help motivate the father to find new ways to play and engage.”

Male depression is, of course, not only apparent in a postnatal setting when it comes to fatherhood. The toddler, child, teenage and empty nest stages can all bring challenges. Charlotte says the same suggestions apply for postnatal depression as they do for any time of life: reaching out, talking and creating a support network. “Feeling connected and supported is essential when someone is experiencing psychological distress,” she says.

As is often the case, communication is key. The more we talk about men’s mental health, the easier it will become for the fathers, sons, brothers and partners in our lives to open up.

Help at hand

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with postnatal depression, or any form of mental health, see your GP or visit the Boots Health Hub, which offers a range of mental health services.

*Study published in Journal of The American Medical Association
**Study published in Pediatrics
***National Childcare Trust