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‘I’d lay in bed each morning with zero interest in getting up’

Israel Smith talking about his experience with perinatal depressionDid you know that 1 in 10 new dads are diagnosed with perinatal depression and anxiety each year in Australia [1]? Israel was one of them. This is Israel’s story …

“There is a decent slab of pressure on new dads to be everything. It’s a world of equal participation in families – dads play a critical role in the child rearing, just as mums now play a critical role in earning and supporting the household financially.

It can be a tough gig to make peace with that multi-faceted role, and I know it took me a long time to find the balance. In fact, I blew out with depression while trying to find that balance.

My daughter’s birth was kind of interesting – she arrived at 33wks gestation, 7 weeks premature. We lived only a short distance from the Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick, Sydney, so we had brilliant care straight away. Indrani stayed in hospital for 3 weeks, and although she was healthy and growing well, it was still tough to leave her in the hospital and go home without her.

I felt fantastic to be a father for the first time. It was a really exciting time for my wife and I, and we had a great time. Obviously there were some up and down days, but on the whole things went pretty smoothly.

So, what was different after the birth of your second child?

My son’s birth was really normal by comparison to our daughter. Everything went more or less to plan – as much as these things can go to plan! He arrived a few days after his due date, and my wife handled the birthing process amazingly. I felt thrilled to have him join our family, and was really excited that we had a boy to join our daughter for our little family of four.

After a few months, however, I realised I was not sleeping properly, and generally feeling tired and angry a lot of the time. I was finding myself overwhelmed with pressure from everything – new child, my wife had stepped out of our business, managing without her and managing extra staff we’d just taken on, training for marathons and triathlons, etc. I was getting burned out and didn’t even realise it.

Can you tell us about when you first experienced symptoms of PND?

I first experienced PND symptoms not long after my son was born, but I honestly didn’t recognise it at the time. I was just thinking I was under pressure, trying to keep up during a tough time, etc. The fact was that the feelings of overwhelm and stress didn’t go away, and by late January 2011 – when my son was about 3 or 4 months old – I was constantly feeling typical depressive symptoms: hopeless, unmotivated, tired, angry, short fuse, no joy in things I had previously enjoyed, and so on.

What do you think contributed to your developing PND?

I believe my PND was caused by a whole host of things. I’d just had the biggest year on record in my business and personal life. Brought on four new photographers and two support staff in June, ran a marathon in July, published a book in August, my wife left the business in September to have our son, I published another book in October – the same month our son was born, and then my wife had a freak accident in November where she cut off part of her finger. By December – Christmas time, and our busiest time of year work-wise – I was holding on by my fingernails and generally not dealing with the pressure of everything.

What was an average day like for you at that time?

I would lay in bed each morning with zero interest in getting up. I eventually would get up, do a tiny bit to help my wife with breakfast for the kids, then get ready to start work. We worked from home at the time. Most days I would feel utterly hopeless and overwhelmed. I struggled with basic motivation to run my business, and I basically hated what I was doing most of the time. I’d yell at my wife and kids all the time, over the stupidest, most meaningless things, and then I’d often fall asleep at the dinner table with exhaustion and overwhelm. Finally, in the later evenings after the kids were in bed, I’d want to stay up watching rubbish television for hours and hours, and have little or no interest in going to bed at a decent hour. Then eventually I’d go to bed, and the cycle would repeat again.

What made you realise you were suffering from PND?

Actually my wife helped me realise that I was suffering from depression. Bel looked up a survey online one day when I was out photographing a wedding, and when I returned home she asked me to take a look. I was stunned, because it was like the author of the survey had read my mind. Everything I was feeling was in the survey and described common, typical depressive symptoms. I didn’t know until much later that I was actually experiencing Post Natal Depression – but I’m glad I found out!

What type of help did you seek? And how did they help you?

I initially saw my local GP, who wrote me a prescription for anti-depressants and referred me to a psychologist within the same practice. I don’t judge whether people do or don’t use medication to support their journey. For me, however, I thought of medication as a last resort, not a first resort. I was always a happy, easy-going guy, and for me to be stuck in this hole was really uncharacteristic. My wife and I preferred the approach of finding out what was underlying my symptoms, so we could treat that, and see how I responded.

My psychologist was happy to work with me in this way too, and gave me a great series of more lifestyle-based treatments. Firstly, I needed to do a LOT of work on my sleep routine – which was horrible. Regular bedtimes, regular wake times, minimum of 8 or 9 hours sleep a night, and less caffeine, alcohol and sugar in my diet to ensure my sleep was restful and helped my recovery. Then we also looked at cleaning up my diet and removing unnecessary stresses from my life and workload.

FORUM: You can chat and find support in our Dads’ Chat forum section

How long was your recovery?

It took me about 6 months to feel “back to normal”, when I didn’t feel the fog of depression every day, lurking behind my eyes. By that point, our business had slimmed down, my stress levels had settled, and my son was sleeping better (so was I!) and our household was much more relaxed.

How are you feeling now?

Now I feel fantastic. I still have down days, days where I just feel flat, sad, depressed for no good reason. I’m getting better at being a decent human *despite* those days, and getting work done and being productive even when I’m feeling like garbage, but sometimes I just do whatever I can to nurture myself.

I consider my depression in the same way alcoholics consider their addiction. I basically say that I will always have a tendency to be a depressed person, but I know what my triggers are, and I know how to better manage my headspace, each day, to ensure I have more up days than down days now.

What advice do you have for new fathers?

My first piece of advice is to just please be honest about how you’re feeling. Seriously. We lie to ourselves about our feelings all the time. “How are you?” “Great, fine, all good, I’m OK thanks.” Bullsh*t.

I wasn’t coping. I hadn’t been coping for months. But it took a phone call with my stepdad, and a moment of blunt, vulnerable honesty for me to actually admit that I wasn’t coping. Once I came clean with myself, everything else because so much easier.

If we males were more honest about our own feelings, like: “I’m really struggling to keep it together. I can’t keep up. I feel overwhelmed all the time. I’m not coping. I don’t know how to do this.” And so on… I’m sure we’d be able to have many many more conversations, productive conversations about our own mental health.

The key here is to start conversations, and be honest. If you’re struggling, reach out to a mate, or a co worker, or a family member, or Lifeline, and tell them how you are feeling. Ask for their help. Tell them what’s at stake here – your happiness, your family, your new child, your life.

The beautiful thing about depression is this: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Thousands of people have gone through what you’re going through, and have survived. I’m one of them. It is possible to come out of the hole you’re in, wiser and stronger. It is possible to get treatment of all kinds to help your specific needs.

But it takes bravery, courage on your part. Courage to own it, and tell someone how you are feeling. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Be brave enough to open up.


The Bub Hub is proud to support PANDA

If you are anyone you know if struggling with perinatal anxiety or depression, call PANDA’s free National Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Helpline (1300 726 306). The service offers counselling, information and referral services with ongoing telephone support for families throughout Australia. The helpline operates Monday to Friday from 9am to 7.30pm EST.

Visit www.panda.org.au for more information and useful resources.

1. Paulson, J. F. & Bazemore, S. D. (2010). Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression: A meta-analysis. JAMA, 303(19), 1961-1969.

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