New fathers experience anxiety and depression too: study

Many fathers feel it is not socially acceptable to talk about their mental health struggles.

Emma Jones 5 minute read March 23, 2022
Young man sitting and unhappy hugging his knees. Man in depression with gloomy thoughts. Support concept for those who are under stress. Man alone on a city. Young man in confused situation.

'Depression in fathers occurs at a lot higher rate than the typical male population,' says Drew Soleyn, Director of Dad Central Ontario. GETTY

A significant number of fathers feel symptoms of anxiety and depression in baby’s first year, according to a new study from the University of Toronto.

Postpartum depression, a complex diagnosis that is linked to an increased risk of depression, typically begins four weeks after the birth. While primarily focused on new moms, recent research shows that fathers may feel these symptoms as well.

Almost a quarter (22.4 per cent) of fathers who participated in the UofT study experienced both symptoms of depression and anxiety at some point in the first 12 months after the birth of their child. This rate remained high into the second year, with more than one in eight (13.2 per cent) feeling these symptoms.

“Fathers matter too,” Cindy-Lee Dennis, lead researcher on the study and professor at the University of Toronto’s Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, said in a news release. “ … We need to be sending the message to fathers that many struggle with the transition to fatherhood and that is OK — support is available.”

For Drew Soleyn, Director of Dad Central Ontario, an organization that provides social groups and support as new dads transition to fatherhood, says that while this finding is concerning, it’s not surprising.

“Depression in fathers occurs at a lot higher rate than the typical male population,” says Soleyn. “It’s under-screened [and] men are less likely to report signs and symptoms of it. So there’s a whole challenge to fathers in their mental health.”

Fathers in the study who were at a higher risk of developing these symptoms were those with poor health four weeks after the baby’s delivery; previously had symptoms of depression or ADHD; felt anxiety during the pregnancy; had a poor relationship with their partner; or had been a victim of intimate partner violence.

The study surveyed almost 2,500 fathers over the course of two years after their child was born. Couples were recruited through the mother — both mother and father had to agree to be included in the study. The male partner living with the mother at the time of birth was classified as the father.

The authors note that the participants in this study were predominately from European ethnic backgrounds and had a high level of education. More research is needed to understand fathers feels in more socio-economically and ethnically diverse populations.

What do we do now?

This finding is important not only for the father’s mental health, but also for the well-being of the children, as health concerns in either the mother or the father has an effect on kids. Recently, research has begun to demonstrate the direct role of the father in child development and attachment.

Support and connection is critical for dads

Assisting fathers through this transition is as simple as extending the same sorts of screening mothers already go through, Brandon Hey, senior research and policy analyst at Mental Health Commission of Canada, explained over email. Both before and after birth, moms are screened for depression, anxiety and other symptoms of postpartum depression. Hey says this care should extend to the fathers as well.

“Integrating wrap around supports, for all parents in the provision of care is essential,” he explained. “This starts with standardized screening and assessment through the pregnancy process and beyond and offering counselling, marital family therapy and more.

“It also needs service providers to be more comfortable talking to all parents about their mental health and normalizing how common struggles like postpartum depression are.”

Soleyn agrees, saying that creating a process to check in on fathers throughout the birth and postpartum period would be hugely beneficial to the families, as fathers may not feel it is socially acceptable to talk about their experiences.

“There’s the feeling of ‘I can’t talk about it. I’ve got to be strong, I’ve got to be the one who’s got to take it,’” he explains. “There’s a whole socialization and cultural element that sometimes causes fathers just to lock it away and not talk about it.”

Connecting with other fathers in various stages of child-rearing has been shown to be beneficial; the background research of the UofT study indicates that maintaining positive relationships can help new fathers as they move into this new life role.

Soleyn explains that many of the fathers he’s spoken to feel as if there’s no where for them to go, and that dad groups can help. Funding specifically earmarked to create support structures for fathers could also be beneficial to the new parents.

“The most important thing I want to share is it takes nothing away from the importance of mothers,” says Soleyn. “Moms are crucial, moms provides so much. It’s simply, let’s let fathers know they’re important too.”

Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at emjones@postmedia.com or on Twitter @jonesyjourn.

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