Today is Fathers’ Day. While it is a day of celebration for many, however, sadly not every father is happy. Indeed, many fathers with postnatal mental health conditions may still be feeling that their issues are being ignored. For that reason, I set up International Fathers’ Mental Health Day on the Monday after the UK’s Fathers’ Day.
Just as mothers can battle postnatal illnesses, fathers can also battle depression, anxiety and trauma following the birth of their children. Many feel useless, struggle to bond with their children and overwork themselves. Unfortunately, they can often become overwhelmed and isolate themselves from social events that once helped them to cope with set-backs. Many of them are suffering in silence, much like I once did.
As a child, I was told never to show emotions, and I regularly heard the phrase “man up”. I was certainly never told that men can suffer with mental illnesses. However, it became clear to me that men can indeed suffer from depression and PTSD after witnessing my loved one go through trauma during labour. Unfortunately, since I had been conditioned to be strong no matter what I was facing, I did not seek immediate help. In fact, I was diagnosed many years after the trauma.
Following the birth of my child, a nurse came to check on my wife for symptoms of postnatal depression. Though I am obviously glad of this, at no point during this check-up was I asked, “And how are you, Dad?” While it is understandable that the nurse only focused on my wife and our baby, it is clear to me after talking to countless dads and families that the fathers are also often in need of support.
It is important that we as a society deal with this because leaving a father to suffer in silence negatively impacts upon a whole family. It’s now necessary to start thinking “family” rather than simply “mother and child”. And since we now live in a society where there are more single dads, more stay-at-home fathers, and more same sex couples than ever before in the UK, this transition is essential.
It’s clear that, while fatherhood has changed rapidly over the last twenty years, the already over-stretched NHS maternity service hasn’t managed to catch up with the change. Our services need to begin screening parents of all genders for their mental health. This should not only occur before the birth, in the antenatal period, and immediately after the birth, in the postnatal period, but also in the years following the birth; as I now know, it is possible to experience the trauma years after the immediate arrival of a new child.
During my recovery, I learnt to replace key ideas about what a “real man” is with much healthier, and much more progressive ideas. Most importantly, I learnt that a “real man” in today’s world is a man that will get the help he needs – that way, he can support his family and keep them healthy. I now know that the quicker I seek help, the quicker the recovery. And the quicker I recover, the quicker I can start really helping my family. I just wish somebody had told me this before I hit crisis point so that I wouldn’t have suffered in silence.
To sum up, we must demand a concerted effort by the health industry and society as a whole to focus on fathers that are suffering. Fathers themselves must also start speaking out. This is particularly necessary here in the UK, where the biggest killer of men under 45 is suicide. I can’t help wondering how many of those we have lost were fathers like me that didn’t speak up. Clearly, we need to start taking the question #HowAreYouDad seriously. So, if you, too, are suffering in silence, please start seeking help. Don’t worry what others may think of you: do it for you. Do it for your family. After all, you will not be alone in your feelings!
By Mark Williams