Mental health campaigner Mark Williams and I had a chance to share our experience of being Dad in a recent Live Chat.
The challenge for men becoming Dads is being talked about more recently, but there is still a huge problem for many fathers struggling silently with their mental health. Mark’s research shows that new fathers are 49 x more likely to take their own lives. I feel that tragedy has to stop and was grateful to Mark for sharing his story and suggesting ways we at Dad.info could support the movement and get people talking about Dad’s mental health.
Mark’s work was borne out of his own struggles. ‘I was 30 years old and thought I was prepared for fatherhood,’ Mark said. ‘But it was a 22 hour labour and the Dr came rushing in and said we need an emergency c-section and we need to get her to theatre quick. It was the first time I had a panic attack.’
Unfortunately, Mark’s nightmare only began there. Michelle (Mark’s wife) was diagnosed with severe postnatal depression and was involved with the Crisis Team. Mark remembers his shock, ‘I was expecting to be back at work within 2 weeks and I was actually off for 6 months. I felt totally isolated.’
In addition, Mark told me that he began to find himself struggling mentally with his wife’s illness and what he had witnessed in the hospital. ‘I was uneducated about mental health but I remember witnessing that trauma and then holding a little baby- my son- and I was panicking. And the mad thing is, you’re then sent home, you’re on your own and you’ve just been through the most traumatic experience and nobody’s actually asked you how you’re doing.’
This experience mirror’s Scott Mair’s experience.
I can certainly relate to Mark’s experience. I think that no one asks how you are when you become a parent because they assume you’re full of the joys of life. But I remember it was the early hours of the morning and I was alone, holding this baby in my hands, sleep deprived, overwhelmed and exhausted, thinking why has nobody warned me about how this would be? I knew I had to get up and go to work in two hours having had no sleep. However, I felt like my wife had done all the hard work- I should just shut up and be grateful! But still, I was sat there with the baby, struggling, thinking why does nobody ever talk about how hard this is? How does everyone get through it?
Tragically, the biggest reason for the death of men under 50 is suicide but what people might not be familiar with is the increased risk in a man who has just become a dad. Shockingly, as a father, you are 49 x more at risk of taking your own life. That is a frightening number and therefore something we all need to be aware of and know what to do if we find ourselves struggling.
There are a number of different mental health disorders that affect us as dads- and before we become fathers, of course.
Firstly, a traumatic birth experience can trigger PTSD, which was the case for Mark. ‘PTSD is either witnessing or experiencing a life-threatening event, and there’s nothing worse than thinking that your wife and baby are going to die like I did 11 years ago,’ he said. And of course, it makes sense: if you witnessed a car accident where someone’s life was at risk and urgent medical care was necessary, you may well be traumatised by that incident. So why would it be any different when that frightening experience happens to your own partner and child?
Then of course, there is Postnatal Depression. Mark’s research report- which has been forwarded to the NHS and the World Health Organisation- found that 1 in 10 fathers suffer from PND. Mark feels it’s important for treatment of dad’s mental health problems to acknowledge the trigger: ‘If you get diagnosed with just depression, you don’t get to the root of the cause. We have to acknowledge the fact that the transition into parenting has massive impacts.’
Mark had a major struggle with PND and adjusting to parenthood. ‘The best way I could describe it would be, if I hadn’t gone through a pregnancy or had a baby, I wouldn’t have been having suicidal thoughts.’
And then there is, of course, anxiety, something that I’m sure most dads experience whilst trying to get to grips with caring for a tiny human being. I certainly experienced that myself. If I had known that other dads felt the same as me, that would have taken half the weight off. But because there was no conversation, I thought I was the only guy- which is embarrassing, and you feel like you’re letting everyone down. Everyone thinks it’s so great being a dad- and it is, but the burden of it is like a rock. I was just trying to function in the morning and keep my job. ‘Anxiety is far higher in dads than depression,’ said Mark. ‘If we can pinpoint the root cause of the anxiety then treatment is better’.
Signs a Dad is struggling
Number 1: Avoidance
One of the top symptoms of low mental health in men is avoidance- avoiding certain situations and responsibilities. ‘If dad is behaving differently, ask questions- why is he behaving differently, why is he not changing the nappy, why is he not bathing the baby- those are the key things we need to look out for,’ said Mark. I noticed that in myself, that I began to avoid things- difficult meetings, difficult emails. I just felt I couldn’t deal with it all.
Number 2: Negative Feelings
If you’re feeling down, withdrawn or sad, then you may be suffering from depression. Other symptoms include feeling bad about yourself, or having troubling thoughts. If you have thoughts about suicide or harming yourself, then you must tell someone- anyone- how you’re feeling, even an anonymous person on a forum like ours at Dad.Info. I guarantee you the voices responding to you will tell you they understand how you feel. There are links at the end of this article to contact as well.
Number 3: Anxiety
Anxiety in men causes a range of symptoms from constant worry and irritability to insomnia and panic attacks. If you find yourself struggling to relax and feeling constantly on edge then it’s possible you are struggling with anxiety.
It can feel overwhelming and hard to tell others how you feel – even to put it into words – but as soon as you open up it can feel like some of the weight is lifted. There are a number of different ways to do this, such as anonymously on a forum, as suggested before, and your family can also listen and support you, as will a close friend.
Your GP will be very experienced in assisting people struggling with issues such as these and you can speak to them by telephone if you don’t wish to speak face to face.
There are a number of counselling services available – some of which you can speak to by text conversation which can help you feel able to open up if it’s hard to talk out loud.
Remember – Many Dads feel the Same
Mark believes that connecting to other dads is a key first step in feeling better, as realising others have the same struggles can alleviate our isolation and mental burden. Mark has created walk and talk groups for dads and community groups with a counsellor present. So the first step is to talk to someone. Don’t suffer in silence like I did. Communication is massively important.
New dads- let someone know how you’re feeling. Even if you can’t open up to family or friends, there are helplines and websites available to you that can begin your journey to feeling better. There are forums out there- Dad. Info’s forum is a great one- and say to someone how you’re feeling. I promise you that the dads around you will say that’s how I feel too. Nobody has a baby and drives off into the sunset. It’s hard. But by sharing and opening up you can begin to feel better.
I still make mistakes as a parent but at least by having conversations about it I see I’m not alone. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We are just being the best we can be.
Helpful Links and Contacts
Mark Williams – Men’s Mental Health Campaigner
Panda Foundation – Post Natal Depression support
CALM – Campaign Against Living Miserably