The transition into parenthood can be both thrilling and terrifying for new parents. Through the decades, we have made great strides in maternal mental health, prioritizing and providing resources to help expectant mothers care for themselves and their child. From the very beginning the mother’s physical and mental health is monitored as closely as the baby she carries all to ensure the best possible outcome for mother and child.But what about Dad?
Far too often the celebration and concern for mother and baby can mean Dad gets less of the spotlight. A 2015 study suggests that up to 25% of men experience post-partum depression (PPD) with the child’s first year, yet most physicians still do not screen fathers for PPD or any paternity related mental distress. The impact of parental mental health on attachment and child development is well documented but disproportionately focused on the attachment between mother and child. Again, less spotlight on Dad’s experience.
So what’s happening?
The lack of focus on paternal mental health is a small piece of the iceberg referred to as the Silent Crisis of men’s mental health. Not only does societal inattention to paternal well-being put fathers at risk, it causes us to miss a major opportunity to support children’s mental health by proxy. Children who grow up in a home with healthy, well adjusted parents have a developmental advantage that is reflected psychologically, behaviorally and socially as the child grows. These children, all other factors controlled, academically outperform their peers, are at less risk of mental illness and are better able to navigate conflict and change.
Where progress in maternal mental came from strong self advocacy and a vocal community of mostly women calling for change, this isn’t the case for paternal health. Men aren’t calling for help. They are barely speaking up at all. Perhaps it is a function of the stigma around mental health. Or perhaps it is the fear of being seen as weak. Most likely it is the weight of socially imposed or self-assumed identity of the protector – the one who provides care but accepts none. Regardless of the reason for the silence, it is an obstacle to healthy men, healthy fathers and to healthy families.
Revolutionary change can start with small steps such as providing Dads with an opportunity to share his perspectives. Listen. Ask questions. Care. Create opportunities to celebrate and honour a father’s journey into parenthood just as much as we would the journey of a new mother.
For professionals, consider ways to support family mental health, incorporating fathers in ways that are not solely focused on Mom and Baby. Talk about the risks of post-partum depression, anxiety and mal-adaptive coping while providing fathers with psycho-educational resources and supports.
When we prioritize fathers, we prioritize the well being of a family and create an opportunity to revisit conversations about paternal identity and issues men face as fathers. This is just one more way we can honour men’s voices and stop them from having to suffer in silence.