About 1 in 7 women develops postpartum depression (PPD) after giving birth. In a press release this summer announcing the approval of Zurzuvae, the first oral medication designed to treat PPD in women, Dr. Tiffany Farchione, director of the psychiatry division in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, described it as a "potentially life-threatening condition in which women experience sadness, guilt, worthlessness — even, in severe cases, thoughts of harming themselves or their child."
Postpartum depression has also been reported among adoptive and other nonbirthing parents, including fathers. Here's what new research says about how PPD can affect men, and what it's like to deal with it as a dad.
What new research says
In September, the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth published a pilot study conducted at the University of Illinois-Chicago focusing on postpartum depression in men, which past studies have estimated affects 8% to 13% of new fathers. Of the 24 dads screened for postpartum depression for this new study, 30% were determined to have it. The results suggest not only the need to invest in more research but also the importance of asking dads how they’re doing after having a baby.
While awareness has grown of postpartum depression in women, little attention has been given to men. Unique social forces shape PPD in dads. “As a society, we’re generally taught women are natural mothers, but stereotypes of dads in the media are the absent father or the bumbling dad,” says psychologist Daniel Singley, founder of the Center for Men’s Excellence. “In that sense, it’s different for Dad than Mom. If Dad feels like a crap parent that doesn’t know what he’s doing, it’s compounded by this socialization that says men aren’t good at parenting a baby.”
Due to a lack of screening and a general lack of awareness, postpartum depression in men often goes undetected. “For fathers, depressive symptoms tend to spike around four to five months postpartum,” says Singley. “And for that reason, a lot of men won’t connect what they’re experiencing to the birth and a postpartum disorder.”
How can dads struggling with postpartum depression receive support? And what does postpartum depression look like in men? Here’s how these fathers experienced it:
'I started withdrawing from everyone.'
Jim S., a father in Orrville, Ohio, celebrated the arrival of his son by cutting the umbilical cord, crying and hugging family. It was one of the best moments of his life. But “after a while everyone left, and mom and baby were both asleep and it just hit me hard," he says. "Not being the same couple made me terribly sad. I started crying and went to the bathroom and closed the door and started sobbing. Not happy tears — this time they were sad ones.”
The 32-year-old’s sadness started that night in the bathroom but lasted for months. “It should have been the happiest time of my life, but I started withdrawing from everyone, including my wife and son. I would go fetch things for my wife but wouldn't really hold my son or feed him.”
It took about three months for him to seek out help. "I finally had enough and went to the doctor,” Jim, who asked to not share his last name, says. “I couldn't take it anymore. Neither could my wife.” He credits her with supporting him and encouraging him to take action after she noticed changes in his behavior.
“I don’t know how she figured it out, but she mentioned men getting postpartum depression and I didn't believe her at first," he says. His family doctor put him on medication, but he regrets not seeing a therapist. “More people need to understand men can get it too, and [that] mental health in general is of great importance.”
'I remember crying in my car after work one day.'
Joel Gratcyk, a father in the Chicago suburbs, noticed symptoms a few months after the birth of his first child. He experienced a loss of appetite, irritability and difficulty focusing. “It was a strain on my job at the time and they weren’t very understanding about me having a kid," he tells Yahoo Life. "I remember crying in my car after work one day. My wife was on a trip, and I had the kiddo with me, and I was just overwhelmed and felt helpless. I was able to pull myself together, get home and make it through the night. That’s when I knew I needed to get help.”
The 42-year-old dad visited a doctor and received medication, which he says helped "with emotional regulation, sleep and diet. " Later, he saw a therapist “to learn cognitive reframing techniques.”
Gratcyk says there's a stigma attached to experiencing postpartum depression as a man. He likens it to what men who have migraine — which is three times more common in women, but also affects men — might encounter. “Both are seen as a woman’s issue,” he explains. “And that’s just not the case for either. All genders are affected by postpartum depression and migraine.”
After Gratcyk’s second child was born, he was able to better manage his daily life. “Luckily, it wasn’t nearly as big of a thing after the second because I had a set of tools to deal with everything," he says.
'We almost split up due to the issues it caused.'
Dale VanVlerah, a dad in Sycamore, Ill., noticed soon after the birth of his first child that something was wrong. “I was sad all the time and would cry at the thought of leaving the baby behind," says VanVlerah. "My anxiety was through the roof, and I was constantly afraid something would happen."
Both VanVlerah and his wife, who now have three kids, both had postpartum depression. “My wife experienced worse symptoms than I did, especially with our first," he says. "She got to a point where she couldn't do overnights anymore because it just got to be too much.” The combination of postpartum depression and VanVlerah’s schedule in retail work caused conflict in their marriage. “We almost split up due to the issues it caused," he says. "I walked into work crying and had to collect myself so that I wouldn't alarm customers. It was around that time I punched a wall at work. Luckily, I hit a stud and didn't put a hole in the wall, though I thought I broke my hand.”
It took about six months after the birth of his first child for VanVlerah to feel better and around four months with his second kid. In hindsight, he wishes he would’ve sought out support — including medication — sooner. Therapy, he says, has been especially beneficial. “It's nice to be able to talk with someone who has boys around the same age as my youngest boys and knows what that looks like day to day," he says.
How to get help
Treating postpartum depression in men can benefit not just dads but their spouses and children too. But many men don’t receive treatment from mental health professionals because of the stigma attached to it. “Left untreated, we know postpartum mood disorders often worsen,” says Will Courtenay, a practicing psychologist in Oakland, Calif., and author of Dying to Be Men. “And they can result in damaging, long-term consequences for a man, his marriage and his entire family.”
Because depression often shows itself differently in men and women, it’s important to pay attention to symptoms. According to Singley, the "four cardinal symptom presentations of masked male depression include irritability (ranging from frustration to rage), a tendency to somaticize (depression manifesting in physical symptoms like stomach or back pain), increase in coping behavior (drinking, drugs, gambling, gaming, etc.) and social withdrawal.”
For new dads it’s helpful to know risk factors that increase the likelihood of experiencing postpartum depression. “Many of the risk factors for postpartum depression in women also predispose men to postpartum depression,” says Sarah Allen, a psychotherapist specializing in working with new parents and founding director of the Postpartum Depression Alliance of Illinois.
“Lack of sleep is one risk factor that is especially common when you have an infant, and depression and sleep problems go hand in hand,” Allen tells Yahoo Life. Other risk factors include financial stress, relational stress, lack of emotional support, drug and alcohol abuse, being a parent of a child with special needs and having a family history of depression.
Despite the toll postpartum depression takes on dads, they can fully recover from it and thrive if given proper care and direction. “Your average dude thinks they have to stuff it and move on,” says Singley, “And that is a mistake. Do not self-isolate. Don’t keep it to yourself. Talk to a trusted colleague or friend. Talk to other dads or a father figure.”
Both Singley and Allen recommend Postpartum Support International (PSI) as a resource for dads to use for support. The organization offers a helpline and provides opportunities for dads to join support groups, speak with fatherhood experts and connect with local volunteers.
Helping men with postpartum depression also involves expanding the understanding of a man’s role in family life and a broader consideration of his emotional life. “Men are socialized to protect, provide and sacrifice, and that is noble," says Singley. "The problem is when men decide that is all they are going to do. A man will be a lot healthier if they protect, provide and sacrifice in some situations, and in other situations, allow others to protect them.”