Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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New Dads Are Depressed, But Don’t Call it Postpartum

Social media and the internet is abuzz with news that postpartum depression can affect new dads.

As many new parents know welcoming a baby to your family feels like being hit by a truck. The emotional, physical and mental demands on moms and dads can feel insurmountable.

But that doesn’t mean that what men and women experience and label as postpartum depression is the same thing. It can’t be understood that way for some very important reasons.

Postpartum depression is a really broad catch-all term that all maternal mental illnesses can get lumped under. Way too often the media, the public and moms struggling with their mood during or after pregnancy think that “postpartum depression” is the same as psychosis, or anxiety or manic behavior. Basically anything that isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Add in dads’ experiences with depression after the birth of a baby and the water is muddied even further.

Awareness and Legitimacy

For years women have been fighting to raise awareness and increase public knowledge that postpartum depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychosis and bipolar are real, legitimate illnesses.

These experiences are unique to women and their biological ability to have babies. Research shows us that pregnancy and childbirth permanently rewire a woman’s brain. It also shows that hormones heighten anxiety and the process of growing a new human leaves our bodies and brains depleted physically and emotionally.

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Differences Are Important

If we focus strictly on the biological components of maternal mental illness then using the term “postpartum” to describe depression in new dads is wrong. Dads don’t physically grow humans. Dads don’t have their hormone levels tumble off a cliff and into the abyss after hours of labor.

Dads don’t have to deal with engorged breasts, or weeks of bleeding and cramping as their uterus contracts. And dads aren’t left with cells from their children floating around their bodies for years after giving birth.

We also know that depression is more than biology, and there are strong social and environmental factors that play a big role in developing a mental illness during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Unrealistic expectations about perfect mothering, unrelenting self-sacrifice and self-denial for the sake of your child, the immediate “bounce-back” expected postpartum and instant, radiant love for your new baby complicate matters.

Throw in sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, social isolation, and breastfeeding and it’s a perfect storm that can even be further exasperated by things like poverty, abuse, education and access to health care.

Paternal Depression

Dads also experience a lot of the same social and environmental stress that comes along with adding a baby to the family. Life is turned upside down as adjustments are made. Depression and anxiety among new dads is just as real and just as common as it is with moms – but it’s not postpartum depression. Instead lets call it what it is, paternal depression with postnatal onset.

Calling dad’s depression “postpartum” turns a misunderstood and highly stigmatized women’s health and social issue into just another psychiatric diagnosis. It takes away the urgency for more investment into treatments and resources that help moms.

It implicitly reduces the need for specialized training for counseling professionals, health care providers and researchers to understand and intimately know the unique subtleties of a woman’s experience during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Generalizing Doesn’t Help

Women are already highly underrepresented in medical research, and our health care needs are physiologically different than men. By generalizing postpartum depression neither mom or dad benefit and collectively we don’t have the time or resources to let that happen.

Postpartum depression is a women’s health and social issue that demands more funding, more research and more awareness that acknowledges the unique experience of physically, mentally and emotionally becoming a mother.

Visit our website to find out how you can get involved in moving forward mom-powered research priorities.