Jarrid Wilson, a pastor and author in Nashville, was “beyond excited” when he learned that he and his wife were expecting their first child. “I’ve wanted to be a dad since I was little,” Wilson says. But in the months after his son was born in 2015, he was overwhelmed with emotions — many of them negative.
“My wife had this immediate connection with this baby that had been in her womb, and for me I was just now meeting this child, and realizing that our entire life was changing,” he says. “It was a weird scenario because obviously I loved our baby, but there was a disconnect. I had all these thoughts that I don’t deserve this, that I’m not a good enough dad, that I’ll never measure up.”
Wilson says he withdrew from his wife and son, always worrying that he would do something wrong or somehow harm the baby. The new dad had struggled with depression after a traumatic injury in his teens, and he recognized the signs. When his son was about four months old, he reached out to a counselor.
“We all need someone in our lives who can give us an unbiased opinion, and my counselor was able to help me grasp what was really going on,” he says. Taking antidepressant medication also helped, as did his strong faith, and he has since shared his experience publicly in an effort to help other men. Earlier this year, Wilson appeared on an episode of TLC’s Outdaughtered, to speak with the reality show’s star, Adam Busby. Busby — father to a 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old quintuplets — revealed on the show that he had also been struggling with paternal postpartum depression.
Although postpartum depression in men doesn’t make the news (or the reality TV circuit) as often as it does in women, the illness is common among new parents. In fact, according to a new Swedish study, it likely affects more new dads than previous studies have estimated. And because new dads aren’t screened for depression the way new moms are, the authors say, they may be at higher risk of their condition going untreated.
The new study, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, cites a 2016 meta-analysis that identified just over 8% of men as suffering from postpartum depression within the first year of a child’s birth. Rates for women have been estimated at 13 to 19%, but according to the American Psychological Association, experts suspect the disease is still vastly underdiagnosed.
For men, the prevalence of paternal postpartum depression varies considerably from study to study, the authors note, and has even been reported as high as 25% in the three to six months after a baby’s birth. The fact that there is no universal assessment for postpartum depression in men — and no consensus as to how, exactly, the condition should be defined — likely contributes to these discrepancies.
Many of the same factors that contribute to postpartum depression in women can also trigger it in men, experts say — including exhaustion, a dramatically changed lifestyle and increased demands on new parents’ time, energy and finances. Men also go through hormonal changes after becoming fathers, although not as significantly as women do.
Through interviews with 447 new fathers in Sweden, the researchers found that the standard postpartum depression questionnaire used for women did not capture symptoms that are especially common in men, such as irritation, restlessness, low stress tolerance and lack of self-control. On top of that, they note, most new dads aren’t screened for depression at all: “In most countries, they are not even asked how they feel,” says Elia Psouni, associate professor of developmental psychology at Lund University.
Psouni and her colleagues say they’ve developed a new screening method that better identifies dads who are struggling. Using this method, they identified significant depressive symptoms in 27% of the men they surveyed. (Because their sample was made up of all volunteers, they note that this may not be representative of the general population of new dads.)
Just as troubling, they say, was the fact that so few of these men had reached out for help. One-third of the depressed fathers in the study said they had thoughts of hurting themselves, but very few had told a doctor or nurse. Among those who were classified as being moderately to severely depressed, 83% had not shared their suffering with anyone.
“Telling people you feel depressed is a taboo,” Psouni says. “As a new parent, you are expected to be happy.” Plus, she adds, research shows that men are already more reluctant than women to seek help for mental health issues.
Psouni and her coauthors hope their study will lead to more — and more accurate — depression screening for new dads, although they acknowledge that this alone won’t solve the problem. Their research has also shown that, even though women in Sweden are screened for depression eight weeks after giving birth, many still do not talk to their doctors about their symptoms. In the U.S., many new moms receive no postpartum depression screening at all.
The researchers also believe that screenings should extend beyond the 12 months that’s standard for clinical trials involving new mothers. Depression among dads is common even after the first year of a child’s life, they say, possibly because these men rarely get help early on.
For men who are struggling, Psouni recommends opening up to their partners and loved ones about everything they’re feeling — the good and the bad. “Inspiring and fulfilling as it may be, parenting is hard work and may change the way we co-parents relate to each other,” she says.
She also suggests asking for help from a doctor or therapist when the demands of parenthood (along with the rest of adult life) feel unmanageable. “It is better to reach out for help if you feel down or agitated, than not to reach out and then regret the time you spent feeling alone in it, and losing this time with your child,” she says.
Wilson, whose non-profit organization Anthem of Hope is dedicated to helping people with mental health issues, says he’s experienced a “night and day” difference since he sought treatment for postpartum depression. He and his wife welcomed a second son earlier this year, and “I’m a totally different person,” he says, “in a good way.”
“I’m present, I’m excited, and the depression no longer has this hold on me,” he says. He hopes he can help others reach this point, too. “There’s this stigma that men should ignore their feelings and just ‘man up,’ but that’s just not the case,” he says. “Men should feel comfortable seeking help when they need it, and they should know that paternal postpartum depression is very real.”