Should We Be Screening New Dads For Postnatal Depression?

In what's been dubbed a “radical” and a “landmark move", the UK this week announced a formal mental health check for some dads. In Australia it's common place for all new mums to be screened, but are dads being overlooked?

Britain's National Health Service will offer partners of new and expectant mothers who have depression or anxiety a mental health check.

Aussie dad of two, Israel Smith, supports the move. He knows just how debilitating perinatal depression and anxiety (PNDA) can be for men.

"It's a great step, I want every dad to be able to sit there and get an opportunity to ask themselves tough questions about how they are feeling and coping," he told 10 daily.

One in seven new fathers experience high levels of psychological distress, and as many as one in ten experience depression or anxiety.

Smith was one of them, but it took 12 months for him to realise he needed professional help.

After the birth of his second child, he was angry all the time, disconnected from his wife, not engaging with the kids. He said he also felt overwhelming waves of sadness and guilt.

"I didn't feel I could have an open chat with my mates, it's just not part of the Aussie male psyche to say 'I need to tell you that I feel sad, guilty and overwhelmed as a dad.'"

Smith is now a men's mental health champion for Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA).

"What the UK is doing is a magnificent initiative," he said.

"But I think it would be good to extend it to all dads, whether at parenting classes or when a midwife comes for the home visit, not just for dads whose partners have a mental illness."

Israel Smith and his families in darker times. IMAGE: supplied

Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia CEO Terri Smith says anything that raises awareness and challenges the taboo surrounding paternal mental health is welcome in Australia.

"I'd also add that we don't have a validated screening tool targeting men, the way we do for women, so I imagine the first step would be to get that test right," she told 10 daily.

Smith also raised concern about only targeting men whose partners are facing their own mental challenges.

"When we talk to dads, about 12 percent of calls are from them. Half are calling to support their wives who are struggling, so not for themselves," she said.

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Smith said often dads don't feel they have a room to worry about their own health, when their partners have been through so much.

"From pregnancy to birth, the physical changes, breastfeeding troubles and sometimes PND too. It's hard for dads to say 'I need some help too.'"

PANDA recently launched mental health checklists for expecting dads and new dads.

"We have been totally stunned at how quickly it is being used and shared. In three weeks, 6000 men have taken the test," she said. 

Mental health organisation beyondblue has also developed campaigns and research regarding PNDA in dads.

Beyondblue's Dr Grant Blashki said the UK is "leading the word" on this issue.

"It's really impressive that NHS is beginning to screen fathers, they have recognised that untreated mental illness has huge long-term costs in society, " he told 10 daily.

Of 1,500 men surveyed by beyondblue in 2015, one in four believed only mothers could get postnatal depression.

The reality is vastly different. The rate of depression for new fathers, is around half that of mothers.

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It amounts to more than 30,000 babies who start life with a miserable father.

The beyondblue research also found that culturally and linguistically diverse and Indigenous new fathers experience particularly high stress as a new parent. As do bisexual and gay fathers.

Gidget Foundation's perinatal clinical psychologist Chris Barnes says the changing role of fathers at home, and in society, is one way to explain this.

"There are more demands on the modern dad than ever before. I also believe anxiety in dads is higher than 10 percent, more like 15", she said.

Barnes says much of the focus is on the health of new mums, and a father's needs are often overlooked.

"I've got a few male clients at the moment, but its because they are coming to a Gidget House to support their partner, and sometimes at that point we see that they need help too," she said.

Research has shown that parents with untreated depression leave a lasting impact on their children.

"Cognitive and emotional development is impacted, and they may not reach their milestones. Also as toddlers, they are more likely to show behavioural problems at preschool," Barnes said.

Readers seeking support can contact:

  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • beyond blue on 1300 22 4636
  • PANDA National Helpline on 1300 726 306
  • Gidget Foundation on 1300 851 758
  • MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
  • Multicultural Mental Health Australia

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