'In my daughter’s loving gaze I could return only helplessness': the silent turmoil of male postnatal depression

Rob Kemp
Matthew Fearon and his daughter

The tragic news of the suicide of John Clayton, 41, a father suffering with postnatal depression (PND), has led to calls for new fathers to be screened for mental health issues.

Clayton, a Cardiff University researcher, took his own life after to struggling to cope with the depression he fell victim to following the birth of his son in 2013, his former wife has claimed.

The news highlights the growing concern over the recognition of Paternal PND, and follows a study by the Priory Group revealing how 42pc of men who experience PND are too embarrassed to seek help as they ‘thought they should be happy’.

“Postnatal depression left me suicidal,” says Paternal PND sufferer Matthew Fearon, 36. “I would hold my daughter before putting her to bed and be overwhelmed with helplessness of what I could ever bring to her life. I was gripped with the darkness, it always ended with the idea that everyone in my life would be better off if I wasn’t around.”

John Clayton suffered from postnatal depression following the birth of his son

Matthew, a copywriter with creative group The Hoxby Collective, didn’t notice the impact until a month after his baby was born. Initially he blamed the “whirl” of parenting for his low mood. “I thought it was all part of being tired and stressed, but the feelings became much stronger. You’re told that parenting is chaos and sleep deprivation, so at first I thought that’s what it was.

“The longer my silence went on the more my PND distorted reality; I wondered how any man survived fatherhood if this was how it felt. Alongside the darkness, in my mind every flaw and every failing – real or otherwise (it turns out mostly otherwise) – was exposed, magnified and feasted on by my depression.”

Having suffered with depression in the past Matthew was aware of the need to seek help, and he noticed how PND was different from his previous experience. “This time it was relentless, unlike the depression I’d suffered with before which would come and go in phases.”

“In my daughter’s loving gaze I felt I could return only helplessness. ‘She deserves so much more than you could ever give her’ is what my PND persistently whispered in my ear.

“After years of freelancing, I finally succumbed and signed a full-time contract with a newspaper. The first place I turned was to the ‘death in service’ clause. I, at last, felt I could be useful to my family.”

Matthew Fearon sought help after suffering from PND

Matthew's saviour came in the form of a nurse, who said during a regular health check: "And how are you, dad?"

“I think it was the first time I had been asked that question and, disarmed by her empathy, I didn’t just say, ‘I’m fine’," recalls Matthew. "I told her what was inside me. She told me I wasn’t alone. She told me more about male PND. She gave me a number to call.”

That was three years ago.

“Because I finally got help I get to experience more wonderful moments with my daughter today than I ever thought probable. Depression feeds off of silence. My advice to any dad who recognises the symptoms, who notices an unhealthy shift in his behaviour, is to find someone to talk to.”

Figures don't match fathers

Whilst official estimates suggest one in 10 new dads are likely to suffer from postnatal depression, mental health campaigners such as Mark Williams believe the figure is much higher.

“They used to use the one in 10 figure for new mums too, that was until the health authorities began devoting more time and money to women’s mental health and discovered the issue was much worse,” says Williams, who has campaigned for greater recognition of PND in men following his own experiences of the condition.

Numbers to call

“Both my wife and I suffered with PND following the very traumatic birth of our child. At the time there was very little focus on the impact it has upon men as partners of sufferers, or as victims themselves. That hasn’t really changed at all. In the current 57 pages of NHS official guidance on the subject there’s no mention of fathers.

“We know that ante and postnatal care is stretched of course but someone needs to be asking all new parents, not just dads, if they’re OK and checking on how they’re coping.”

“PND looks very different in men. We tend to keep things to ourselves. Often the symptoms present as turning to drink or drugs or in some cases resorting to domestic violence when that has never been an issue before the birth of their child.”

Time to shift the stigma

“There are lots of factors which can contribute to postnatal depression – worries  about your new responsibilities, your loss of freedom, money worries and concerns about managing on a single income, worrying whether you will be a good father, and, if your wife has PND, you might feel more prone to depression too,” explains Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, clinical director with the Priory Group, which also found in its study that many men are put off talking about their issues by the stigma surrounding mental health. Nearly half of men and women (47pc) said there was not enough support for new fathers experiencing difficulties adjusting to parenthood.

“Parental depression can also have a serious impact on children’s behaviour and development so it’s vital we widen access to help for it.” She adds that men who have a history of mental health issues are particularly susceptible to paternal depression and that men are more likely to suppress their feelings with risk-taking behaviour like alcohol and drug use.

“Men still aren’t always encouraged to talk about their feelings or share their fears,” says Olivia Spencer, author of Sad Dad: An Exploration of Postnatal Depression In Fathers. “The landscape is changing with moves towards more equal parenting through policies liked Shared Parental Leave, but whilst the expectation upon new fathers has risen, the tools and support to help them fulfil their role aren’t in place.”

The signs of postnatal depression in men

Dr van Zwanenberg suggests symptoms of serious depression may include:

  • Feeling low in mood

  • Lethargy, not wanting to do anything or take an interest in the outside world

  • Loss of appetite or comfort eating

  • Having difficulty sleeping; waking early, or having nightmares

  • Difficulty in concentrating or making decisions

  • Feelings of guilt about not coping, or about not loving your baby enough

  • Having anxiety or panic attacks

  • Being obsessed with finances

  • Greater dependence of drink or drug to cope