While mental health of women has been a routine part of maternal care, there is still a lack of attention to fathers’ mental health throughout pregnancy, birth, and postpartum.  The prevalence of mental health problems in fathers throughout the prenatal and postpartum period is worrying. Fathers report experiencing more clinical psychological distress than the average adult male.  However, new fathers and step fathers are even more likely to experience mental health problems than other fathers (Giallo et al., 2012).  This is because new fathers and step fathers have less contact time with the infant, experience less social support, and smaller social networks.  

Overall, the prevalence of paternal perinatal depression (PND) internationally has been estimated to occur in about 10% of fathers.  PND is depression reported throughout the pregnancy and postpartum. While it is assumed thatpostpartum is most stressful, fathers have indicated that the pregnancy is the most stressful time for fathers. Studies have examined the transition to fatherhood and the negative effects it has on a father’s mental health during the pregnancy (Condon, Boyce, & Corkindale, 2004).

Postpartum

Postpartum depression (PPD) is distinguished by depressive symptoms occurring within the first 12 to 24 months after the birth.  The findings on PPD are consistent and alarming.  It is estimated that 1 in 4 fathers experience PPD (Courtenay, 2015; Habib, 2012; Paulson & Bazemore, 2010; Goodman, 2004).  The highest prevalence of paternal PPD is three to six months postpartum (Paulson & Bazemore, 2010).  New fathers and stepfathers report even higher levels of postpartum depression than other fathers. Factors that increase the likelihood of a father experiencing PPD include:

  • personal history of depression
  • relationship stress
  • nonstandard family structure
  • poor social functioning
  • economic problems
  • lack of positive father role models
  • lack of support

Role of Male Gender Norms

With unaddressed problems accumulating during the pregnancy, fathers begin to exhibit patterns of behavior.  While this may be discounted and labeled as “typical male behavior,” it is indicative of a deteriorating mental well-being.  Compared to non-fathers, fathers drink more alcohol, are more depressed and irritable, have a more negative affect, and suffer more negative somatic symptoms (Condon, Boyce, & Corkindale, 2003). These coping behaviors are male specific signs of depression that differ from general depressive symptoms. This is because male gender norms allow males to only express negative emotions like anger and frustration.

Furthermore, men are less likely to seek help or report having a mental illness than women.  Male gender norms hold that if there is an issue for a male they need to fix the problem not deal with the emotional effect.  The accumulation of unexamined emotional disturbances is reinforced by male gender norms, and makes the greatest impacts postpartum.

The poor and shallow images of a father also contributes negatively to a father’s mental health.  While the image of what a good father is has progressed, the majority of fathers still say their father was psychologically absent, had negative attitudes towards them, or said “they would not do what their father did” (Madsen, Lind, & Munck, 2002).   Fathers need to have this positive role modeling or support to bring awareness, process, and intentionally define what a father is.  Unexamined negative views of how one defines a father will continue to negatively impacted a father’s mental health.

Effects on Children

Mental health problems present and left untreated can result in both short and long-term consequences for the father, child, and family system. Estimates of behavioral and psychological impacts on children from fathers experiencing depression have varied and are inconsistent (Rosenthal et al., 2012).  The children whose fathers experienced depression are likely to have future psychological problems in and be more vulnerable to adverse effects of a lower social class.  Boys experience the biggest impact from their father’s poor mental health.  There is a 109% increased risk for childhood psychiatric disturbance in boys as well as a 166% increased risk of conduct problems in boys later on in life.