Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
In the past few years, the issue of postpartum depression has come into the spotlight more than ever before, thanks to the many brave mothers who have opened up about their own struggles, and an overall increase in media coverage. This rise in social awareness has been pretty incredible to watch, particularly because postpartum depression — while more common than people realize — often carries with it a fair amount of stigma. Even now, as it’s been pushed to the forefront of our conversations about parenthood, many mothers still feel ashamed to admit that they’re having a problem, and don’t seek out appropriate treatment.
But according to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, we may have been neglecting to realize that it’s not just moms who are suffering. It turns out, dads experience symptoms of postpartum depression in almost exactly the same frequency as moms, experts say.
Now, I know that when this topic comes up, there are bound to be a few skeptics. After all, dads aren’t the ones growing babies in their body for nine whole months, and then being flooded with a roller-coaster of raging hormones once they give birth. They also aren’t dealing with breastfeeding issues, potential birth trauma, and the physical and emotional recovery of those postpartum weeks and months.
But no one is saying that dads have it just as tough as moms do from a physical or hormonal standpoint — just that they are more likely than we thought to experience signs of depression when they become dads. In fact, according to this new research, dads report symptoms of postpartum depression in virtually the same exact numbers as moms do.
The study, carried out by researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine, looked at postpartum assessment surveys filled out by moms and dads at over 9,500 pediatric health centers as the parents took their babies and toddlers in for visits.
The vast majority of parents bringing their kids in for the visits were moms, but dads did bring their kids in a number of times, and these dads were all screened for PPD just as the mothers were. In the end, 4.4% of dads tested positive for PPD, as compared to 5% of moms who did.
The researchers point out that there were times when both parents brought their kids in, and in these cases, usually the mothers filled out the survey. So it’s actually possible that certain cases of PPD in dads were missed.
“We talk so much about gender discrimination in medicine and how women are often undiagnosed and undetected for the same disease or condition that men are. This is the opposite,” Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent, explained in reference to the study. “We don’t have our radar up to detect postpartum depression in men and we need to.”
The study authors admit that more research needs to be done in this area, but that their study does highlight the fact that more dads experience signs of depression after having kids than we realize. Part of the problem, they say, is that dads simply aren’t aware that this could be an issue for them at all.
Additionally, Ashton tells ABC News, symptoms of PPD in men may appear differently than they do in women. Men externalize their symptoms, whereas women internalize them. (“They escape through activities that you can see,” she says.) These activities may include substance abuse, gambling, irritability, and angry outbursts.
Obviously, these are serious symptoms that should concern us all. After all, depression in dads can affect kids just as strongly as depression in moms can, researchers say. In addition to encouraging dads to open up more about their feelings, the study authors are also encouraging all heath care providers to screen dads for PPD, just as they screen moms. An AAP paper from 2011 encourages this screening as well.
Believe it or not, this isn’t the first study to have linked dads with PPD in recent memory. Back in 2016, a groundbreaking report from the University of Massachusetts’ Journal of Parent and Family Mental Health found that anywhere from 4-25% of new dads experience postpartum depression at some point during the first three to six months after their babies are born.
So the question is: Why aren’t we talking about it more?
I can’t speak for all families out there, but I personally noticed symptoms of PPD in my own husband after the birth of our second child. At the time, we both brushed them off as and blamed them on a few bumpy weeks with a newborn at home. Looking back, though, I wish he had looked into counseling or other treatment, because the depression didn’t go away as quickly as we’d hoped, and he suffered for too long during that time.
The bottom line is that we can’t neglect the mental health of anyone, especially during the vulnerable years of new parenthood. And we need to break down the roadblocks and myths surrounding people getting the proper help they need to heal. I hope studies like this open the door to do that.