“I just want to support her, she’s the mum.”
“The little one’s doing well, that’s the main thing.”
“You just have to get on with it.”
“I work really hard, then I get home and there’s more work.”
“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t—whatever I do is not good enough.”
“My dad says it was so different then.”
“She’s all about the baby, not about me anymore.”
This is just a sample of what dads have said to me across the years I’ve been working as a psychiatrist around pregnancy and early family life. I’m called a perinatal psychiatrist; I’m a doctor whose job is helping families get started in good mental health—feeling well in their heads and hearts.
Some of the dads I’ve seen had diagnosed perinatal depression and anxiety; many had undiagnosed PNDA (their partners were my patients and they hadn’t sought help for themselves); most of the dads were having a hard time as they came to grips with fatherhood.
When does having a hard time become a mental health problem?
As a rough guide: when it’s nothing but hard; when there’s no fun left; when you’re suffering most days in your body and your mind. Most commonly I find dads struggle when there’s a mismatch between the burden the household is under (eg. sleep deprivation, work stress, physical illness, financial stress, grief) and the household’s resources (eg. skills, time, money, energy, help from family and friends or professionals). The books don’t balance, and although dads usually dig deep within themselves to make up the difference, they pay a price.
Unless something changes, they’re headed for crisis.
‘Women and children first’ is the old saying in a crisis—on the Titanic, for example—and it’s still somewhat true. Mums and babies and siblings are screened universally and are far more likely to see the inside of a clinician’s office than dads. And yet, throughout my years in this work, I’m reminded time and time again just how important dads are to life and wellbeing in their families.
The more dads I see, the more I see how feeling good about the kind of dad you are affects feeling good about yourself overall. A healthy dad is a healthy man, who more than likely has a healthy family.
The same is true in hard times too. A suffering dad means a suffering man and probably a suffering family too. Dads often say they’re putting their family first, as a reason not to care for themselves, but believe me, that doesn’t work. If you don’t look after yourself, soon enough those you love and care for will lose out as well as you.
So, how do you know if you need help?
Again, as a rough guide, go with your gut first. Do you feel confident of things improving without help? Are you sometimes overwhelmed? Are you coping in ways that get you through the day (or night) but that you’ll pay for down the track? And if your gut isn’t bothered, but people around you are, could they be right?
Having worked out that you need help, how should you go about getting it? This can seem like a big barrier, but please don’t let it stop you. I can’t state this strongly enough: When you get the right help the difference it makes can be massive, and everyone in your house can benefit.
What you can do:
- Tell your partner, a trusted friend or family member—two brains on the case are usually better than one.
- See a good GP—Book a ‘long consult’ so there’s time to explain what’s going on and work out a plan.
- Call or connect online with great resources like PANDA (1300 726 306), BeyondBlue, Mensline or Lifeline (13 11 14). Don’t just ask ‘Dr Google’, who has a very big brain but no people skills! Use the internet to find an actual person qualified to help you.
The content in this article should be used as a guide only. If you experience any health-related concerns you should contact your local healthcare provider or nearest emergency department.