Men should be screened for postpartum depression too—but should we call it something else?
By Sarah Bregel
Postpartum depression impacts up to 20% of new mothers. The mood disorder can disrupt women’s lives and livelihoods for years if left untreated. And in the most devastating cases, it can even steal women’s lives. However, research suggests that men can experience postpartum depression, too—and it may be more prevalent than previously thought.
The new study, published in the journal BCM Pregnancy and Childbirth, screened fathers using the same tool frequently used to screen mothers at around seven months postpartum. About 30% of the dads screened positive for postpartum depression, which was much higher than the typical rates seen in dads (8% to 13%).
Physician Sam Wainwright, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, believes part of the reason for the higher rate was that most participants were from a racial or ethnic group that experiences structural racism, leading to greater mental health challenges and fewer resources.
Still, the high numbers are striking, and Wainwright says that asking new fathers about their experience is important given the study’s findings. Dads can certainly feel the weight of their shifting family dynamic. They may be overwhelmed with the financial aspects of new parenthood, and balancing work and home responsibilities. But rates of postpartum depression in dads increase by a hefty margin (up to 50%) if moms are also experiencing a postpartum mood disorder at the same time, according to the study.
Undoubtedly, postpartum can be an emotionally challenging time for both a new mother and a new father, and examining men’s mental health during this time is crucial. However, women who give birth are often fighting multiple risk factors for postpartum depression that are unique to their physiology. After a woman has gone through pregnancy, she experiences the largest hormone fluctuation that ever happens in the human body. Studies have also shown that permanent brain changes occur after a woman gives birth, which can also be linked to depression.
Other studies have shown that women’s postpartum mood disorders are deeply linked to how involved their partners are. However, women still do more child-rearing than men. And more household duties. The fact that women are still doing more at home—even when they go back to work—adds another risk factor to the moms column.
While we shouldn’t overlook the mental health of new dads, we should also remember that women who give birth—the ones who are literally postpartum—are still far from receiving the help they need. Postpartum depression in women is still drastically underdiagnosed.
While women may be better about seeking mental health treatment than men, that changes during the postpartum period: Only about 15% of women who experience symptoms of postpartum mood disorders seek the help they need. For many, that may be true because there is still a fairly large stigma around postpartum depression; women may not want to admit to struggling for fear of being labeled a “bad mom.”
Mental health can be a challenge for both partners after a baby comes into the picture. But perhaps we need a different term to reflect men’s experiences during this emotionally taxing time. Women are already sharing their bodies, their beds, and virtually every aspect of their lives after welcoming a new baby. They don’t need to share the term postpartum depression with their male partners, too.