Study Finds Dads Are Almost As Likely As Moms To Develop Postpartum Depression

These findings will hopefully initiate more conversations about men's mental health and encourage men to seek help when needed.

In recent years, postpartum depression has gained increased awareness, allowing new mothers to seek the treatment and support they need after giving birth. However, a new study indicates fathers are almost as likely to develop postpartum depression.

According to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Pediatrics, doctors are screening for, identifying, and treating postpartum depression in mothers at increasing rates. However, as researchers discovered, while nearly five percent of the moms screened positive for depression, 4.4 percent of the dads did, too. Led by Erika R. Cheng, PhD, MPA, an epidemiologist and researcher for Children's Health Services Research and the associate director of the CHSR Fellowship Program at the Indiana University School of Medicine, the study looked through more than 9,500 pediatric community health center visits by parents of newborns, infants, and toddlers.

"The fact that so many new dads are experiencing depression is significant because depression can have serious consequences if left untreated," Cheng told Infectious Disease in Children. "We know that dads who are depressed are less engaged with their kids, which can lead to cognitive and behavioral problems."

"This presents a great opportunity for pediatricians to improve the health of the entire family by screening both parents for depression and connecting them with appropriate resources," she added.

"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," said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent, told Good Morning America. "We don't have our radar up to detect postpartum depression in men and we need to."

"We need to drop the stigma with all mental illness, whoever it affects," Ashton added. "Obviously dads are just as vulnerable as moms are."

However, as the study highlights, mothers and fathers typically express their symptoms in opposite ways. While women tend to internalize their depression, men are more likely to "escape through activities," Ashton notes, which often include substance abuse, outbursts of anger, irritability, or behavior like gambling.

Will Courtenay, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Oakland, Calif., and an expert on men's health, told Parents the best predictor of a man's risk of depression comes from whether his partner is also depressed. "Half of all men whose partners have postpartum depression are depressed themselves," he said. "Depression in both parents can result in devastating consequences for their relationship and especially for their children."  

Courtenay added that society subscribes to the cultural myth that men should be stoic and tough things out. "So when men start to feel anxious, empty, or out of control, they don't understand it and they certainly don't ask for help," he explained. On the contrary, women tend to have a larger social network and share stories and strategies during pregnancy and life as a mom. Therefore, dads almost always assume they're alone when overcome with fear or sadness.

According to Courtenay, some men exhibit classic symptoms of sadness, while others become irritable, agitated, or angry. Dads might even experience shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or full-blown panic attacks. 

"Guys who suddenly start working 60 hours a week may also be depressed, since immersing themselves in their job is the way many men cope with stress," Courtenay explained.

However, hope isn't lost, as men have access to the same mental health resources as women — they need only ask. Men who find themselves feeling worthless or disconnected should consult their physician to determine the best approach for their given case. Dads might also want to turn to online resources, such as Postpartum Men, as such sites provide facts about just how prevalent this illness has become and where they can turn for assistance.

Ultimately, Cheng and colleagues hope these findings highlight the importance of educating physicians about depression in parents, and that healthcare professionals will begin developing strategies to "integrate screening tools into routine care" as it pertains to both men and women.

"Depression in new dads is not uncommon and should be taken seriously," Cheng concluded. "Dads who experience symptoms of depression — including sadness, irritability, agitation, and anger — shouldn't hide their feelings. We'd like to continue our efforts to de-stigmatize men's mental health and increase awareness of depression in fathers in the postpartum period."

Cover image via Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

More From A Plus

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.