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Healthy Outlook

Dads can also get postpartum depression

By Alice Lin, MD

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A little while back, I was treating a new mother who was dealing with postpartum depression. As many mothers do, she was on an emotional roller-coaster after the birth of her child, suffering from mood swings, extended bouts of sadness and feelings of worthlessness.

Fortunately, her husband helped pick up the slack around the house and with the baby. With the help of her husband and treatment with counseling and antidepressants, she steadily improved and got over her depression.

The husband, who I'll call Alan, wasn't so lucky. The added responsibilities at home had taken a toll on Alan. He was fatigued, irritable and prone to anger. So just as his wife was coming out of her funk, Alan had fallen into his own. He eventually sought treatment at the suggestion of his family. Through a combination of a regular exercise regimen and low dose antidepressants, Alan was able to overcome his own postpartum depression.

We don't often think of fathers as being susceptible to postpartum depression, but, as a growing body of research shows, they are.

In 2010, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that 10 percent of men have prenatal and postpartum depression. That's twice the rate of depression found in men in the general population. The study found that new dads whose kids were between the ages of three to six months were the most likely to be depressed.

There are often consequences for the child of a depressed dad. A 2011 study published the medical journal Pediatrics found that depressed fathers were three times more likely to spank their young children than new dads who weren't depressed. Depressed fathers were also less likely to read to their children. Limited interaction with a parent can have a negative effect on a child's brain development.

What causes postpartum depression? It is widely acknowledged that hormonal changes after birth likely play a role in affecting womens' moods, but similar changes may also affect fathers. Some research indicates men experience a drop in testosterone after their children are born. But what exact role the lowering of testosterone plays in male postpartum depression is unclear.

There does appear to be a clear link between the mental health of the mother and depression in fathers. If the mother has postpartum depression, research suggests the father is more likely to be depressed (as was the case with Alan).

No doubt there are thousands of new fathers with postpartum depression who are undiagnosed. In part, that's because dads aren't being screened for depression. It's also because men who are depressed often just try to suck it up and get by without seeking professional help. If you're a new dad wondering if you're depressed, here are some common signs: irritability; difficulty concentrating at work; finding it hard to related to your baby; trouble sleeping; and drinking alcohol more often.

The good news is that there's help out there. Postpartum depression can be treated with counseling and, if necessary, medication. New dads can also help themselves by getting more rest, exercising and allowing themselves to have fun now and again.

Becoming a parent is a joyous occasion. It can also be overwhelming, especially in the first few months after the baby comes. But it gets better as time goes on and anxious fathers come to realize that their old life may be over, but a wonderful new one has just begun.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
About the Author

Dr. Lin is a family physician at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center & Health Centers.