It’s called paternal postnatal depression, and it’s very real.
"Postpartum depression and anxiety aren’t exclusive to women,” says Gabrielle Mauren, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at the Park Nicollet clinics in Philadelphia. Paternal postnatal depression (PPND) is very real, and very common: One study published in the journal Pediatrics found that during the first five years of their children’s lives, depression scores among new dads increased by 68 percent. “And if a mom has postpartum depression, her partner has a 40 percent chance of being depressed too,” says Mauren.
Having a baby is a major life change, whether you’re the one who gave birth or not, and adjusting to the major lifestyle shifts that parenthood brings can be overwhelming. “Anytime our lives are thrown up in the air by something new, our mental health can be affected,” says Mauren. Much like a woman’s fluctuating hormones play a role in postpartum depression, research from the American Journal of Human Biologysuggests that men also experience hormonal changes during and after pregnancy—namely, decreased testosterone levels, which can cause an uptick in depression and anxiety.
Combine these hormone fluctuations with the neurochemical changes that happen in the brain—as a result of the chronic stress, sporadic eating habits, and severe sleep deprivation that come with being a new parent—and you’ve got all the ingredients of a depressive episode, says Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. If your beau has a history of struggling with depression, she adds, he’s at even greater risk of experiencing depressive symptoms when faced with life changes (even if that change is bringing your bundle of joy home).
Not all depression triggers are hormonal, however—there are a variety of environmental factors that can play a role in PPND too, such as feeling disconnected from mom and baby (say, because mom is excluding dad from the newborn experience). “A common factor for men who develop postpartum depression is a feeling of competency,” says Mauren. In other words, it’s very important that new dads have ample opportunity to bond with their mini-me so that they can develop self-efficacy in their new role as father.
To top it off, the relentless societal pressures attached to parenting can make anyone feel inadequate. “Cultural expectations can have a very strong impact on how parents see themselves,” says Mauren. “If a new parent feels like he is not living up to what is expected of him, or if he feels like he’s failing his child in some way (example: financially), this negative self-talk can lead to depression and anxiety.”
Adoptive parents face unique issues that can place them at risk for post-adoption depression—including sudden or uncertain timing of placement (compared to a set nine-month waiting period for biological parents), difficulties with parental entitlement (feeling entitled to parent when someone else carried the child), and, for parents adopting non-infant children especially, challenges with attachment and bonding.
“Post-adoption depression and anxiety is often undiagnosed and may not be treated right away because there’s little awareness of it,” says Abbie E. Goldberg, Ph.D., associate professor and director of clinical training in the Clark University Department of Psychology in Massachusetts. Plus, adoptive parents may be hesitant about seeking help—similar to new dads, they often feel like they don’t have a right to feel depressed. The same goes for non-biological mothers whose partners carry and bear the child; they may feel that their emotional struggles aren’t valid since they didn’t give birth (or more commonly, struggle with outsiders not viewing them as full and equal parents).
Signs of postpartum depression in fathers, as well as in adoptive or same-sex parents, are no different than signs of depression in the general population. “Behaviors become concerning when they’re out of the ordinary, excessive, and disruptive to functioning,” says Mendez. “Concerning signs of depression are those that aren’t representative of a person’s typical manner of functioning and style.”
However, symptoms can look different in men than women: New dads may experience some of the more common symptoms of depression, such as low mood, irritability, and changes in appetite, but typically won’t show as many outwardly expressed emotions (think: ugly crying). It’s more than likely that his actions will be the giveaway that something’s off—working a lot more (or a lot less), withdrawing from relationships, and turning to alcohol or other risk-taking behaviors are all indicators of PPND.
Other red flags to look out for in your partner: difficulty getting out of bed, feelings of hopelessness, paralyzing anxiety or fears, and extreme indecisiveness, says Goldberg.
If you think your partner might have postnatal depression or anxiety, Mauren suggests helping them recognize the change in their personality or behavior by using concrete examples. If your boo normally enjoys a weekly phone chat with his brother, for example, but lately has been skipping it to play video games, you could say, “I’ve noticed you haven’t talked to [brother’s name] in a while. How are you feeling?” This can help open up the conversation in a non-accusatory way.
“When someone is struggling with depression, they may find it harder to make decisions,” says Mauren. Making a plan and telling your partner exactly how you’re going to lend a hand will make it easier for your partner to accept help. You can start with smaller gestures, such as going out with the baby so they can take a nap, and work your way up to larger ones, like buddying up to get screened for PPND. The sooner you can get your partner in to see a doctor, the sooner the healing process can begin.
“For new adoptive and same-sex parents, both of whom are vulnerable to feeling invisible and invalidated, a great resource can be joining a support group of adoptive parents,” says Goldberg. “If none exist near you, reach out to other adoptive parents online.” Same deal for same-sex parents. Beyond this, it’s important to talk to a therapist and possibly a psychiatrist. “It can be difficult to find practitioners who advertise themselves as ‘LGBT affirming’ and ‘adoption competent,’ but they do exist,” says Goldberg. Finding a pro who’s respectful and affirming of your identities and who validates your difficulties is everything.
And most importantly, make sure your S.O. knows that postnatal depression is nothing to feel embarrassed—or worse, guilty—about, and that it’s not their fault. It’s super-common, and they’re not alone. “Feeling supported by family and friends is an essential part of a new parent getting better,” says Mauren.