image by: Anne Lowe
For millennia we have seen links between childbirth and depression. But a new study suggesting that fathers can also be susceptible make help take our understanding of the condition beyond the biological.
It was known even to the ancient Greeks that women sometimes suffered emotional or psychological difficulties after childbirth. By the 18th century the phenomenon was much discussed, although the name we have for it today, postpartum depression, would come later, as would a more nuanced understanding.
Even today, however, the causes of postpartum depression are not well understood, and in recent decades an increasing number of researchers have turned away from a purely biological/hormonal focus to investigate whether psychosocial factors may play a part.
A recent outcrop of those investigations is documented in a recently published study finding that postpartum depression can—and does—occur in fathers. Researchers at the University of Auckland surveyed over 3,500 men with a pregnant partner, then caught up with them again nine months after childbirth. As reported in JAMA Psychiatry, over 6 percent of the men reported experiencing elevated symptoms of depression during the perinatal period (the epoch between the third trimester and nine months after the child had been born), with slightly over 4 percent reporting depression during the antenatal (postpartum) period.
While the percentage of men experiencing postpartum depression is only about one-fourth that of women (15 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health), that fact that researchers have found a statistically significant correlation between of increased depression in men with the postpartum period may have implications not only for new fathers, but also for our understanding of postpartum depression in women.
But with women at least there is already a significant body of literature on the subject of postpartum depression in women. The University of Auckland study, however, is one of the first to investigate the condition in men.
“As in many other countries, New Zealand women are assessed for postnatal depression following childbirth,” says Dr. Lisa Underwood, one of the study's co-authors. “[But t]here is no routine screening […] for fathers before or after the birth of their children, since they are not usually engaged in routine perinatal care."
Because the study did not confine its surveys to the postpartum period, researchers were able to open a window onto what conditions might be predictors of postpartum depression in men.
“In the present study of fathers, self-reported poor health and self-perceived stress during the pregnancy were consistently linked to paternal depression during the pregnancy,” Underwood says. "[…] Additional risks only associated with paternal postnatal depression included a history of depression, unemployment, relationship status, and family environments during the postnatal period. Of these, the strongest predictor of paternal depression was no longer being in a relationship with the child’s mother.”
While gaining a better understanding of which issues contribute to postpartum depression in fathers may have the direct benefit of helping future fathers manage or avoid such factors, an indirect but no less important benefit may be for the children born to these men.
“Arguably, the first step in doing this [study] is to raise awareness about factors that lead to increased risks among fathers themselves," Underwood says. "[…] Increasingly, we are becoming aware of the influence that fathers have on their children’s psychosocial and cognitive development. Given the potential for paternal depression to have direct and indirect effects on children, it is important that we recognize and treat symptoms among fathers early."
The study was conducted as part of the University of Auckland's Growing Up in New Zealand project, a longitudinal study of 7,000 children that started before their birth and will follow them through the first 21 years of their lives.
"The Growing Up in New Zealand cohort gives us a unique context in which to identify risk factors for parental depression symptoms around the time of birth and follow long term effects on children’s health and wellbeing,” says Underwood. “It provides policymakers with evidence that is relevant to New Zealand families of today and can be used to better target those who may benefit from extra support to avoid downstream problems.”
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
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