Jan 9, 2023

Interviewer: You've likely heard of postpartum depression in regards to the mother of a new baby. But did you know as many as 10% of fathers face their own sort of postpartum depression? And it can happen before or after their child is born. But unfortunately, men are unlikely to discuss it or get support. And untreated, it can impact the emotional health of the father and his ability to be available for his baby and the mother.

Jamie Lea Hales is a licensed clinical social worker, and she specializes in helping couples with their mental health during and after pregnancy. I didn't know postpartum depression was a thing that men could have. Does it have a particular name when men have it, or is it just male postpartum depression?

Jamie: Actually, it really doesn't have its own special name. You would think that it might, but the reality is we just refer to it as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders because it can hit moms, dads, partners, grandparents, and caregivers really just in general. So it's much more broad than I think we initially realized.

Interviewer: And what causes it?

Jamie: I think it comes from a combination of life stressors, changes, loss of identity, and also the fact that your brain can change as you become a parent.

Interviewer: Wow, that's really interesting. So is it all in the brain? Is it all chemical related or are there other factors that can contribute to male postpartum depression?

Jamie: Outside of the changes to the brain, realistically when you have a new baby enter your life, whether it's your first or your fifth, there are going to be some compounding psychosocial stressors that come along with that. It is one of the biggest changes that you can go through.

Interviewer: And what kind of stressors are the most common to contributing to perinatal mood disorders or postpartum depression in men?

Jamie: First and foremost, lack of sleep. I cannot hit that one enough because it is the thing that I see over and over again. If you are not taking care of yourself, if you're not getting enough rest . . . And when I mean enough rest, I mean four- to five-hour chunks at a time. For both parents, this is probably the key to keeping yourself well.

Interviewer: Are there other types of stress guys talk about that can lead to male postpartum depression?

Jamie: When we look at some of our male patients, the pressure to provide financially can actually increase stress quite a bit because there are dueling priorities between being home, helping out, and being more involved, which we are seeing a lot more men being more actively involved in their child's caregiving, but also the dual pressure of having to be at work as well.

I mean, I don't want to completely gender that because that can 100% be the reverse as well. But it's just a lot.

Interviewer: And I've heard another major form of stress for men can be these expectations about what it's like to be a father or the kind of father they want to be. Can you tell me more about that?

Jamie: We all have this idea maybe in our heads of what parenting is supposed to be or should be. And when you actually get into the thick of it, a lot of the time, it doesn't line up with exactly what you thought it would be. And so there can be kind of an interesting grief reaction.

If you had a difficult relationship with your parent, you may have a lot of pressure on yourself to do better than they did. Or if you feel like you had the ideal parenting situation and it's not . . . And some people do. I mean, some people really do feel like, "My dad was the best. He was the best that I could possibly hope for." And then when they feel like they're not living up to what those expectations might be, that can be really, really difficult for people to accept.

And it takes some time I think, especially if you're not going to therapy or talking with somebody openly about this, to be able to resolve and say, "Okay, but I get to decide what type of parent I am going to be," and whatever that is, is okay.

Interviewer: Right. It doesn't have to be what you see on TV or in the magazines or what the guy down the street is doing.

Jamie: Absolutely.

Interviewer: We create those own realities ourselves.

How do most men experience this when they describe to you how they're feeling? What are the words they use?

Jamie: A lot of the time, it's just "I'm not feeling like myself." There's a loss of identity, I think, coming into being a parent.

And some of the symptoms that we see more frequently with men is irritability. Lots of "I've been really snappy with my partner a little bit more, just quick to anger in general."

We also see an uptick in use of substances. So more frequent use of whether it's prescribed to things that they've been given to help with sleep or anxiety, or even just increase in alcohol use because there is that stress and trying to figure out how to kind of mellow out. That's something that we see pretty frequently.

Interviewer: Are some fathers more likely to be impacted by male postpartum depression than others? Are there some things we know?

Jamie: Definite risk factors are preexisting mental health conditions. You are far more at risk for experiencing a PMAD if you are already struggling with mental health conditions.

Now, that being said, it does not mean that it will necessarily get worse. It's just something to be very much aware of, which is why we talk about a lot of this from a preventative standpoint.

Also, if you are somebody that has struggled with depression or anxiety prior to having kids, staying on your medication and continuing to work with that is going to be pretty key.

Another risk factor that I would definitely want to touch on is when a pregnancy is unplanned or unwanted and you haven't had adequate time to truly process through that and kind of wrap your head around it, that can be a risk factor as well.

So I highly encourage people who are in maybe a situation that they're not 100% sure about to talk with their partners about it well in advance during the pregnancy so that you can work on communication and really just work on trying to set yourselves up for a healthy plan for self-care once baby actually gets here. It's important for both people, and I always like to include both partners as much as I can in our process.

Interviewer: At what point, if a guy recognizes some of the symptoms you talked about, should he be concerned and seek some additional help to get some tools to help get through this time?

Jamie: If you notice it at all, if it's really impacting your day-to-day life, it's impacting your relationships, impacting your work, that's a great time to reach out and get some help. I think that there is benefit potentially to getting on the internet and looking at some just online resources, just trying to understand it better and get some education.

Interviewer: And of course, make sure that the resources you're reading are reputable from medical institutions, that sort of thing. Are there other resources online you like?

Jamie: The online resources I do really enjoy because I think it's a good way for dads to find a community of people who are struggling with the same things and are being open about it without having to search too hard or run the risk of feeling like the person in their life is just going to say, "Well, suck it up."

If it looks like it is getting worse or you just don't quite know how to wrap your head around it, I think that speaking with somebody who is in the mental health field could be very warranted.

This is a really common thing. We see this. Statistically, it could be 10%, but I think it's much higher than that. So please reach out for help if that's something that you feel like you could be struggling with or even if you're just unsure. There is no shame in that.

Interviewer: For men that aren't quite to the point where they feel they need to see a professional, you've talked about an acronym called SUNSHINE that can help with postpartum depression. Does this apply to both women and men?

Jamie: Absolutely.

Interviewer: All right. Let's go through this, because this is a tool right now that our listeners could take away and start implementing right now and see if it helps. So let's talk about SUNSHINE.

Jamie: One of the wellness acronyms that we use quite frequently in our work is actually SUNSHINE. So what it is, is a series of different things that you should be thinking about when it comes to your mental and physical well-being during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

So it stands for sleep, understanding, nutrition, support, humor, information, nurture, and exercise. So those are all points that I think would be helpful in the preparation phase for having a kid, to think about, "How am I going to still try to get some of these things?"

And it's going to vary depending on where you are in that process. During the early stages, your focus may be on one of those things. And throughout the process, it might be able to expand into something else.

So I always advise my patients not to think about it as if you're not doing each and every one of these things, you're failing at your postpartum experience or you're failing at therapy. But just make sure that you are keeping them somewhere in the back of your mind because you are still an important person and your relationships are still important, whether you've got a baby in the picture or not.

Interviewer: So just give us one sentence for each one of the items in SUNSHINE. So sleep.

Jamie: Four to five hours as often as possible. Uninterrupted.

Interviewer: Uninterrupted. And try to get the standard eight to nine, otherwise?

Jamie: Absolutely, if you're able to. What that will likely look like, however, is especially in the early days taking turns potentially with your spouse, because they also need that time.

Interviewer: What about understanding? Expand on what that means.

Jamie: Understanding can mean a couple of things. You could again reach out and try to get a better idea of what other people's experiences have been like. Or you could also just get some education around what perinatal mood and anxiety disorders actually are.

Interviewer: And then what about nutrition?

Jamie: Nutrition, that's a tricky one. So this is not a great time to start a brand new diet plan. It's probably not going to be the top of your list of things. What we do want to make sure is that you are making sure you're actually eating and fueling your body. It's really, really easy to put your focus all on everybody else and sort of forget that you have needs also.

Interviewer: All right. So make sure you're eating and try to get as much nutrition as possible, knowing that maybe you might have to use some convenience foods.

Jamie: Absolutely. And preparation going into this can be really helpful for that, making sure that you do have some healthy things around the house. But I'm certainly not going to judge you if the thing you ate for lunch was a bag of M&Ms. Just get something in your system if you can.

Interviewer: Support.

Jamie: Support is something that we should start generating right from the get go, whether it's our family, improving our communication with our spouse, whatever that looks like. It's good to try and bring your support system in as long as that's a safe thing for you to do.

Interviewer: All right. And humor. Crack lots of jokes?

Jamie: Definitely. Hey, dads are known for their dad jokes, right? That's a thing for a reason. But being able to laugh at the situation sometimes really can help. Not only does it increase your endorphins and just make you feel better in general, but sometimes being able to find humor in the absurdity that can come along with parenting is not a bad thing to do.

Interviewer: Good tension release a lot of the times, yeah. Information.

Jamie: Information. Get good information about these things. Get good information about your mental health. When I say go to online resources, I think finding ones that are specific to dads' mental health through Postpartum Support International are great. I would suggest don't go down the social media rabbit hole of things that will probably make you feel worse about your parenting.

Interviewer: Does information also include just learning more about what it is to raise a child?

Jamie: Absolutely.

Interviewer: Because to me, that would be a major stress point. I have a friend that I don't know how many books he read before his child arrived, and he said it just made him feel so much better.

Jamie: Yeah, I think it can be a real help to people just having a better idea of what that could look like. The caution I will put on that is that there is a perspective for pretty much anything you can find out there. So maybe get some guidance from your pediatrician before you just delve into something.

Interviewer: Yeah, make sure you're getting some of the good books. Nurture.

Jamie: Nurture comes back to the self-nurturing piece of this. It is okay to talk about how you are feeling.

Interviewer: And feel. It's okay to feel. A lot of guys struggle with just even doing that or identifying what the emotion is.

Jamie: Yeah, absolutely. Or feeling like a dad in general. It's a big shift and we want to make sure you're taking care of yourself.

Interviewer: And it's okay to say, "Hey, I'm doing okay. I'm an okay dad." I mean, if you can't say, "I'm a great dad," go with, "I'm an okay dad," I suppose.

Jamie: Being a good enough dad is good enough. It's different for everybody. And people always balk a little bit about that idea, but there is a whole theory around the good enough mother, and so we do actually talk about that quite a bit. Dads fall into that category too.

Interviewer: And finally, in SUNSHINE, you have exercise.

Jamie: Again, I'm not saying go out and start a whole brand new plan and get a gym membership and do all the things that you've been trying to accomplish, but get some movement. That movement can just be going out for a walk once a day just to get some vitamin D and stretch your legs.

Interviewer: It's good for the body and the mind.

Jamie: It is.

Interviewer: Exercise, like you said, releases all those endorphins and makes you feel good, helps reduce that stress.

If those things aren't working, what's the next step that you would recommend a man take?

Jamie: I would recommend reaching out to even if it's just your primary care physician to say, "I'm struggling with this. This is hard." If you are actively involved in child's doctor's appointments, you could even talk to your kid's pediatrician about how you're feeling. They have a lot of really great resources.

Interviewer: Jamie, this has been a very informative, great conversation. I know it's going to help a lot of dads-to-be. Any kind of final thoughts as we wrap up this conversation that you would really want somebody to take away after listening?

Jamie: There are times when you're in the early stages where it just feels like everything is falling apart, but you're definitely not by yourself. You're not the only one that has struggled with becoming a parent or feeling like it's going to be like this forever. It's truly not. Get some support, and at the end of the day, it will get better and you're not by yourself.

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