Dads' Mental Health Matters: How One Dad's Experience Of Depression Inspired Him To Help Others Globally

The assumption that postnatal depression only affects women has led to a lack of support for new dads, according to the founder of a fathers' mental health charity.

"I was one of those people who didn't believe in depression until it entered my life, but trust me, it can happen to anyone," Mark Williams, 41, told HuffPost UK Parents.

Williams, dad to 11-year-old Ethan, set up the organisation Dads' Mental Health Matters after experiencing harrowing depression following the birth of his son and struggling alone for seven years.

Having had nowhere to turn himself, Williams' aim was to create a support network so no dad would suffer in silence like he did.

Mark Williams and his wife Michelle both suffered from depression after the birth of their son

The dad-of-one said he felt he had everything in place to start a family when his wife Michelle, 38, became pregnant in 2004.

But almost immediately after the birth of their son via emergency caesarean, Williams said both he and his wife were affected by postnatal depression.

"The first time I ever had a panic attack was in that delivery room," Williams said.

"I thought my wife and baby were going to die.

"The pregnancy was fine and we had no issues with our mental health - it was of course exciting to become a family," he said.

"It wasn't until the labour that things went terribly wrong. I remember doctors coming in and saying without any empathy that Michelle had to have an emergency C-section.

"After the birth, my wife was tired and wanted me to stay with her all the time.

"At the time I didn’t find this unusual, I just thought it was normal behaviour as she must have been exhausted and had received a lot of drugs."

Williams described his first 18 months of parenthood as being "like hell", as both he and his wife struggled immensely with their mental health.

"During the weeks that followed, she was still clingy, which was very unusual," he said. "I began to realise something was wrong."

After several weekly visits from their health visitor, Michelle was diagnosed with postnatal depression.

But Williams said because of his ideas about what it meant to be a man - a gender who stereotypically don't talk about their feelings - he wasn't able to voice that he was feeling exactly the same.

It took Williams seven years to seek help for his mental health

While William's wife was getting the help she needed from professionals, Williams felt isolated and hid his feelings from everyone around him.

"My wife's depression had a knock-on effect on my own mental wellbeing," he said.

"Neither of us had ever suffered with any mental illness before and we didn't understand it.

"I had to give up my work, so there was no money coming in to pay the mortgage which was hard.

"Soon my wife and I isolated ourselves from family and friends and my own personality started to change from a happy-go-lucky person to someone who wanted to drink and start fights."

Williams said he didn't even know he was suffering from depression until 2011 when everything peaked and he felt helpless, having hidden his own feelings for so long.

Williams googled help for depression in his local town - Mental Health Matters Wales came up and he picked up the phone to call.

"The lady over the phone told me to go to my GP and within hours I was on medication Citapram and a waiting a list for counselling," he said.

"To speed things up, I took it on myself to get private counselling and after having cognitive behaviour therapy, I felt my confidence coming back.

"I also found mindfulness so helpful and even today use it when under stressful situations.

Williams was encouraged through counselling and his GP to talk about his story and he began to find other men in the same situation as he was. He began to realise just how common a problem it was, but how few support groups for fathers existed.

"I couldn't believe the lack of support for men," he said. "There was just no national awareness of or help for dads suffering from postnatal depression."

"But of course, men have many of the same worries mothers do and we question our ability to be fathers: 'Am I going to be a good dad?' 'Can I provide?' 'Am I good enough?'"

In 2011, Williams set up Fathers Reaching Out, a website, forum and advice provider for dads suffering from postnatal depression.

In 2012, he was awarded 'inspirational father of the year and local hero' at the Pride of Britain awards. He has since appeared on BBC Breakfast, Channel 5 programme My Secret Past and has spoken on many radio stations including Woman’s Hour and Live 5 Radio about his own personal story to raise awareness.

Mark Williams now speaks out about his own story to raise awareness

As momentum grew, Williams soon realised that Fathers Reaching Out wasn't broad enough to deal with all the issues of dads' mental health.

"I was finding there were bigger issues, we needed something different," he added.

"I wanted to raise awareness globally of men's mental health and provide a network for dads to support each other and educate others about mental health."

Williams set up the registered charity Dads Mental Health Matters UK in 2015, which is currently having a new website built.

He wanted mental health, especially for dads, to lose its taboo nature and be talked about openly as much as possible.

"After all it is an illness but we just can't see it," he added.

The charity gives every dad who approaches them a 'Dads Matter' pack which includes information about positive coping skills.

Dads Mental Health Matters UK also provides professional training on the subject of men's mental health after birth and Williams has also managed to get Denise Welch and Scotland rugby player Scott Hasting on board as ambassadors.

"With support from volunteers we aim to provide a network of people willing to support the father and the family during this time," Williams said.

"At the moment we are only in the early stages, but we are aiming to provide a meet-up for dads, run by dads, to support each other at sporting, music and other events.

"Walking and exercise groups are another of our focuses, as men tend to talk more openly side-by-side rather than face-to-face in my experience with fathers."

Although it's still early days for the charity, Williams said he has already been able to see the positive impact this support network is having.

One dad who has benefitted from it is father-of-one Dan Newman, who has sought advice from Williams and other dads at the charity.

Newman found himself struggling with depression shortly after his wife gave birth to their first child.

"Being a strong husband, a confident father and a dependable bread-winner is tough," he told HuffPost UK Parents. "Remembering that you also need support to get you through each day is easily forgotten.

"With the heavy burden of postnatal depression making daily tasks difficult, giving others the chance to help you is a great start to lighting that load.

"The group has helped me find an outlet. Meeting other men who have experienced the same emotional challenges as me has given me a massive boost."

Newman said knowing he is not isolated anymore is reassuring and the practical advice has helped him gain perspective in his life.

Just five months after launch, Williams feels the charity has gained momentum quickly. He has been asked to talk at workshops in New Zealand and Dubai in 2016, has already spoken in Parliament and is taking part in research with Oxford University about postnatal depression in fathers.

His aim? To take the support network he's creating global.

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