Dad opens up about the shame of dealing with postnatal depression

Despite the belief that postnatal depression only affects women, one in ten men experience depression during or after their partner’s pregnancy.

The symptoms can vary from one dad to another, and men might struggle to realise they even have the condition.

A man is more likely to experience postnatal depression if their partner does, too.

Postnatal depression symptoms are generally very similar to those of other depressive disorders, such as socialising less, feeling anxious or worried, having a lack of energy, and feeling hopeless – but after the arrival of a baby.

These are the symptoms Tom Shirley, 33, a pub and restaurant manager from Cheshire, is currently suffering from.

His partner, Bethany, gave birth to their little girl Maisie, now 10 months, by emergency C-section in November 2019. It was a ‘traumatic and difficult birth’.

Tom noticed that he was feeling more anxious and that his mental health was declining as Bethany’s pregnancy progressed. He worried about not being a good dad and how hard parenting would be – and felt ‘overwhelmed’ by all of the changes.

Tom didn’t feel like he could tell anyone how he was feeling. He ‘didn’t want to stress or worry Bethany’, and he was overwhelmed by everyone telling him how exciting the pregnancy was.

Tom tells ‘There didn’t seem to be a place I could go to to talk about how I was feeling without making a big deal of things.

‘Bethany had mum groups on Facebook to share experiences, and support from midwives.

‘How I was feeling as a father-to-be didn’t seem to be recognised. I don’t remember a single midwife asking how I was doing.’

Tom says that when Maisie was born, he felt ‘terrified’ and ‘angry’.

He continued: ‘I had no idea what to do with myself, or this little girl in front of me. I felt like I was drowning.

‘Maisie’s birth was very traumatic. It left both her and Bethany poorly, and Maisie had to go into NICU with sepsis and pneumonia.

‘Instead of the happy time everyone talks about, it was horrible.

‘I didn’t know what to do with myself. Did I stay with my wife and support her, or did I go down to NICU and be with my child?

‘When I left I was that tired I cried when I couldn’t find my car. Again, nobody really asked how I was doing.’

Tom first noticed his health declining when Bethany was still in early pregnancy. His early symptoms were not being able to sleep, losing his appetite and not wanting to get up in the morning.

Tom, who experienced depression in his teenage years and early twenties, says he was struggling so much throughout his partner’s pregnancy that by the time Maisie was born, he felt completely disconnected from his daughter and like he didn’t even want to hold her.

He said: ‘I didn’t want to hold her, I didn’t want to care for her. I didn’t want to be responsible for this human being that was so reliant on us.

‘That’s changed as she’s gotten older. Now she’s developing her own personality and doing more things it’s gotten easier. Though this could also be because in this time I have opened up about how I’m feeling.

‘Now I love her so much. There are times when I struggle, but it is getting easier. Talking has helped. My wife is going back to work soon, and I will be looking after Maisie one day a week while she is at work.

‘I’m anxious about this and we are trying to build up to this. I’ve been trying to take care of Maisie more by myself so I can learn how to take care of her, but I’ve had to do extra hours at work recently due to the Eat Out To Help Out scheme.’

While talking about feelings has helped, day to day, depression is still a ‘massive’ part of Tom’s life.

It has put his relationship under a lot of stress – especially when he opened up to Bethany, and told her that he was ‘feeling suicidal and didn’t want to be around anymore’.

He continued: ‘It’s meant that I haven’t been able to do everything I’d like to do to support her and Maisie, and I know that has an affect on her. She has her own mental health battle too with anxiety, and it’s a balancing act trying to help each other, trying to be parents, trying to do everything we need to do.

‘Depression makes it hard for you to motivate yourself to do things, but a baby means you don’t have a choice. She has needs and we have to meet them. That’s hard when suffering from mental health issues.’

Tom frequently experiences anxiety and a feeling that he is disappointing people. He constantly that he is not a good dad.

His mental health issues have impacted his social life, and he found it hard to ‘put on a mask and pretend to be happy at work’.

‘Working in hospitality, it’s important to provide service with a smile. That’s hard with depression,’ he said.

Tom adds that the pandemic has also had a negative impact on his depression.

After speaking to Bethany and his family about how he was feeling, he was urged to speak to his GP.

The UK was just about to go into lockdown, and Tom says the doctor was ‘brutally honest’ with him.

‘Despite telling him I felt suicidal and was struggling to go on, the only thing he could offer me was antidepressants,’ Tom recalls.

‘I had no chance of accessing any talking therapy such as CBT. Since then all I’ve had is a rolling repeat prescription of the antidepressant Sertraline.

‘My wife spoke to the health visitor last week about how she was feeling, as she is suffering from postnatal anxiety, and she said that a service called “birth reflections”, in which you go over your birth notes with a midwife and discuss what happened, is starting back up soon.

‘We’ve been added to the long waiting list. This is something that will help both of us come to terms with the very traumatic birth.

‘Lockdown also had an effect as our usual ways of improving mental health, such as exercise and going to the gym, getting out and about, spending time with loved ones, wasn’t possible.’

Tom struggles to open up about what he’s going through because postnatal depression in men ‘seems like an almost taboo subject’.

He said: ‘You don’t hear many men speak up about their mental health, and especially post natal depression. It seems like an almost taboo subject, something you don’t bring up in conversation.

‘It definitely seems more acceptable for women to speak up, and I’ve seen people suggest that it’s just a hormonal issue and so can’t affect men. That isn’t the case.

‘Becoming a parent is one of the biggest things that can happen to a person. To me, it seems perfectly understandable that would have an affect on mental health.

‘So, am I scared to speak up about it? I’m worried about what people might think. Whether they think I am a good dad, or less of man, or just plain weak.

‘My wife has provided a lot of reassurance that I am a very good dad, and that speaking up is a very brave thing to do, so that helps. But yes, I worry what people may think of me.’

Tom is currently taking antidepressants but is not receiving other treatment. He feels like he needs more help. He’s being supported by his wife and his family – but not by mental health services.

Tom continues: ‘It can be such a huge thing in peoples lives, and men need to feel like they can speak up without fear of being judged.

‘I heard on the radio earlier that the rates of suicide in men were at there highest level last year, and so mental health in general in men needs to be talked about more. I’d never seen any men talk about postnatal depression before. Maybe if I had it would have inspired me to talk up sooner.

‘I also think there needs to be more spaces for dads. There is a complete lack of spaces for men.

‘When we first started looking for support, we found postnatal mental health support groups, and although they said that men were welcome, none specifically catered to men.

‘I would have been walking into, or joining a group, where I was likely the only man in the room. That would have made it harder to speak up.

‘Even at playgroups where my wife would go to meet other mums and make friends, there were no other men in the room.’

Tom feels men suffering with postnatal depression need to speak out sooner – and not allow the problem to mount like he did.

To those suffering, he said: ‘Don’t let it get too late. Even if you don’t seek medical help, speak to your partner or your family as soon as you feel even remotely down. Talking really does help.’

If you are struggling with postnatal depression, it is important you let the health visitor and your GP know. If you need to talk, The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) offers online support for dads and a shared experiences helpline 0300 330 0700. Don’t suffer in silence.

Need support? Contact the Samaritans

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

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