Postnatal depression affects fathers too. It's a fact, it's been researched, professionals working in mental health and in medicine agree that it exists, and I've spoken to many sufferers over the past year...but what are we going to do about it? Postnatal depression affects whole families and, whether it's a mother or a father who is actually ill, the effects can be both long-lasting and wide-reaching.
Many people I've talked to agree that changes need to be made from the very beginning of antenatal care. In the UK the NHS is stretched to breaking point, maternity services are no exception, but although their main concern is, quite rightly, the health of the mother and baby, perhaps this would be a good time to talk about the mental health of both parents and how they are feeling about the changes and challenges a baby will bring. Simple things, like encouraging fathers-to-be to attend appointments with their partner, or making sure they are involved in some way can make a difference.
Again, antenatal classes are heavily focused on the birth process and the immediate aftercare of the baby - the domain of the mother. In the UK there are currently a very small number of antenatal classes run exclusively by men, for men - somewhere they can voice their fears, ask questions, or simply talk to fathers who have been through it all before. These sort of classes would be invaluable to some fathers and could help high-risk men be identified and helped early on, or at least made aware that their mental health could be affected too.
Michel Odent, the very well respected obstetrician, believes that some men shouldn't be present at the birth of their child. Some men are fragile and witnessing the birth can affect them physically, as well as having a negative effect on their mental health. You may, or may not, agree with this, but the point is that it must be made acceptable for fathers to opt-out of attending the birth. We expect men to be there, but for some couples it could be disastrous, even if the birth is straightforward.
It's important, too, to see fathers as part of a parenting team. Families are changing, they have changed - mothers and fathers go out to work, and fathers are expected to share household and parenting responsibilities, but often family services have not caught up with this change. There is still an entrenched view that women are the carers and men are the workers - this sort of view only adds to the difficulties faced by fathers who suffer from depression after the birth of their child. Fathers are carers, and they do, usually, take a very active and loving role in parenting their children, but workplaces do not support this. Often, fathers need the flexibility afforded to mothers on their return to work - perhaps longer, and better paid, paternity leave would help fathers adjust. At the moment, leave after a baby is born is incredibly one-sided, and it doesn't help fathers who are suffering.
The biggest change we can make is probably both the simplest and the most difficult. We need to start talking about dads with postnatal depression and make it not only acceptable to suffer, but acceptable to admit to others. Simple questions, like 'how are you feeling?' can be the hardest ones to actually ask. As much as we'd like it not to, or as much as we'd like to think it doesn't, there remains a debilitating stigma around mental illness. Talking about it, even if it's difficult, is probably the best thing we can do to change that, and by talking about postnatal depression and simply being aware that it might affect the fathers we know, can make a huge, life-changing difference.