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The Mental Health of Fathers

In the UK, the general view of fathers, the roles they play and their importance to healthy child development has improved over time. Gone is the era of the father standing outside the hospital or the birthing suite reception waiting to be told they have become a father. Many fathers attend antenatal appointments with their partner and many will be in the birthing suite supporting their partners during labour and birth. And yet there is still not an equal recognition of the need to support fathers and their mental health. 

Fatherhood is a universal topic, but this blog looks specifically at the UK context, where I have experience, and it looks specifically at fathers, not partners of birthing people. Although “partners” is a more inclusive term that would include same-sex non-birth partners, for example, this blog is focussed on men becoming fathers, because it tackles the social and cultural ways in which fatherhood has been framed and the importance of mental health of men in that context. I invite those from other countries and other family structures to share their experiences in the comment section of this blog. Doing so will support a more inclusive view of the experiences of non-birthing partners. I am a father myself and add my experience in small amounts. 

Postnatal depression affects between 10 to 15% of women within the first two years of birth. It might be surprising to hear the figures for fathers are similar. According to Dads Matter UK, “Official statistics recognise only 10% of dads suffer from postnatal depression but a study by the National Childbirth Trust (NC) in June 2015 found [that as] many [as] 1 in 3 dads (38%) are worried about their own health and 3 in 4 dads (73%) are worried about the health of their partner.” 

Statutory paternity leave in the UK is, “either 1 week or 2 consecutive weeks’ leave” to be taken within 56 days of the birth on pay that is, “either £156.66 a week or 90% of their average weekly earnings (whichever is lower). Tax and National Insurance need to be deducted.” This is enough time to acknowledge the exhaustion of becoming a new parent and adds a little financial pressure on top. It does not offer the time and space to make a healthy transition into fatherhood. In 2015, ‘Shared Parental Leave’ (SPL) was brought in with the intention of supporting the building of a fairer society where the responsibility of child rearing could be shared equally. Research conducted by the Department for Business found that as little as 2% of eligible families were making use of the opportunity in 2018/19. The reasons for the paucity of uptake were multiple. However, the negative effect on household income and the idea that fathers who took SPL were doing so at the expense of the mother’s opportunity to bond with the infant, were reasons often cited. The result of this structure is that new fathers do not have the time to bond with their newborns or do so only with some financial consequence that some families cannot afford.

Fathers have a right to support if they are experiencing poor mental health and getting support benefits their partners and children. In 2018, the National Health Service (NHS) recognised this need by offering mental health screening to fathers. Unfortunately, screening is offered only in instances where their partners are diagnosed with postnatal depression. This can leave some fathers unsupported. As Dr Andrew Mayers points out, “Many mothers are not referred into those NHS perinatal mental health services, or do not meet the criteria for inclusion. In those cases, the father is missed. Fathers can develop poor postnatal mental health independently of the mother. Those fathers are also missed.” It is widely recognised that supporting the mental health of fathers is important for the birthing partner and the children; “Fathers with good mental health help mitigate the impact of maternal mental illness, acting as a protective factor for the children’s mental health (Khan, 2017).” The impact of not addressing the mental health of new fathers can be tragic with, “Fathers with perinatal mental health problems are up to 47% more likely to be rated as a suicide risk than at any other time in their lives (Quevedo et al, 2011).”

Making support available is important, but it is equally important how that support is delivered. The presentation of poor mental health can frequently look different for men. “Men are more likely to recognise and describe the physical symptoms of depression (such as feeling tired or losing weight) than women. Men may acknowledge feeling irritable or angry, rather than saying they feel low. Everyone feels ‘down’ occasionally but if you’ve been sad, moody, angry or unable to sleep or concentrate for more than a couple of weeks, it could be depression. Men tend to use negative coping skills: Drink, Drugs, Gambling, fighting and other issues.” Taking these factors into consideration is important so as to not chastise men going through these experiences, but to acknowledge they are, potentially, a form of crying out for support.

Scaling effective support for new fathers has been a space for development. Best Beginnings, in partnership with many of the organisations mentioned below, recently rolled out the father-specific pathway to their app Baby Buddy. The app delivers personalised information on a daily basis, has a wide and expanding suite of videos on a variety of topics related to the birthing process and the early years of child rearing, the ability to develop personal support plans and hold the health records of children digitally. 

There are a number of individuals and organizations doing great work to highlight men’s mental health, and I outline some of them here. It’s by no means a comprehensive overview, and I encourage naming more in the comment thread below.

Mark Williams, campaigner, advocate, and author is a leading actor championing fathers’ mental health. Elliott Rae, founder of Music, Football, Fatherhood, delivers talks and podcasts, has written a book and raises awareness of the challenges faced while providing the space for fathers to talk. Ian Dinwiddy, Director of Inspiring Dads, guides HR leaders to support new fathers, advocating for equality. Future Men, a London based charity, delivers the one day course Future Dads, giving practical guidance and, more importantly, the opportunity for groups of fathers to think about what fatherhood means to them.   

The mental health of fathers is not a fringe matter. It is core to the healthy functioning of families and for far too long it has been left to one side. Let’s all play our parts to bring it into the centre. 

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