Giving birth to a real-life human being transforms the female body, often in strange and not-so-fun ways, which explains why many new mothers are thrown into a deep, dark depression in the months after they give birth. The levels of estrogen and progesterone (female sex hormones) in their bodies increase tenfold during pregnancy, then drop swiftly in the days immediately after their children take their first breath. Given this hormonal clusterfuck, it’s actually surprising that only approximately one in seven women experience some form of what medical experts call postpartum depression.
But according to a recent study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, new fathers experience postpartum depression, too. The study found that eight percent of men suffer from some form of postpartum depression within the first year of their child being born, and according to the American Psychological Association, some experts suspect that the condition remains wildly underdiagnosed.
Speaking to that last point, it’s worth noting that the prevalence of postpartum depression in men varies considerably from study to study — one even suggests that nearly 26 percent of men become depressed within the three to six months after their child is born — which probably has something to do with the fact that male postpartum depression screening is virtually non-existent. In fact, only recently have postpartum depression screenings for new mothers become even somewhat common in America, and since postpartum depression in men is a relatively new idea, there’s no telling when doctors might begin to screen new fathers more consistently and get a clearer idea of the numbers.
Making matters worse for fathers is the fact that they tend to refuse to ask for help — a theme that we see time and time again, even when men are on the verge of death. One-third of the dads in the Scandinavian study said that they had thoughts of hurting themselves, and yet a whopping 83 percent of those who were classified as being moderately to severely depressed refused to share their feelings with anyone (which certainly also contributes to the massive variations between studies on the subject).
Perhaps the part that makes people most suspicious when discussing the topic, though, is the fact that, with no real physical changes to speak of, there shouldn’t technically be any underlying cause for men to experience postpartum depression. But as it turns out, dads are susceptible to hormonal changes too, albeit, less intense ones: A recent review of studies performed at Princeton University found that new fathers experience a decrease in testosterone and an increase in estrogen, oxytocin (the bonding hormone, sometimes referred to as the “love” hormone), prolactin (the milk-producing hormone) and glucocorticoids (which curb inflammation).
“Reduced testosterone, along with elevated estrogen and oxytocin levels, might facilitate affiliative behavior in primate fathers,” according to the study, which suggests that, from an evolutionary perspective, these hormonal changes encourage new dads to stick around and bond with their children. “The idea is that [the new father] isn’t going to be out on the savannah looking for some hot babes, and instead, is going to have less testosterone and less of a desire to do that,” says psychotherapist Will Courtenay, who specializes in helping men with postpartum depression. “Those kinds of hormonal changes can wreak havoc on a man.” (Courtenay also notes that men who have lower levels of testosterone are more responsive to the cries of their babies.)
How exactly these hormonal changes cause postpartum depression in men remains largely unclear, but we know that wavering hormones — particularly sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone — are linked with increased vulnerability and mood swings, which could certainly lead to depression.
The Scandinavian study mentioned above also suggests that many of the same factors that contribute to postpartum depression in women may also affect men — including exhaustion, a dramatic lifestyle change and an increased demand on their time, energy and wallet. Courtenay also emphasizes that sleep deprivation caused by newborns is a major contributor to postpartum depression, both in men and women: “Normal, healthy adults who go without good sleep for a month begin to show signs of clinical depression, so sleep likely plays an important role.” Add in the fact that new fathers tend to get even less sleep than new mothers, and you start to see how men could be seriously affected.
The intense emotions that come along with becoming a father play a major role in the development of the condition as well. “Most men rely on their partner or their spouse as their primary source of support — women tend to have much larger social networks than men have, and they also make much greater use of those social networks,” Courtenay explains. “So when a child suddenly enters the picture, and mom has a 24/7-job with this new baby, she’s, for all intents and purposes, unavailable to [her husband]. That can be really, really emotionally hard on a man.”
“One thing that I know from my own research is that men who were the oldest child in the family are at greater risk for depression,” Courtenay continues. “What happens for a lot of three-, four-, five- and sometimes six-year-old boys is that they have a stay-at-home mom who’s devoted, spends all kinds of time with them and everything is just, like, total bliss for them. Then suddenly, they’re four or five years old, this other thing comes into the picture and mom is gone. This is like an old wound that gets reopened for men.”
Courtenay also mentions that becoming a father oftentimes brings men face-to-face with thoughts of their own father, which can be distressing for numerous reasons. “Dads will tell you that they want to be exactly like their father — ‘He was my hero!’ — or that they want to do everything the opposite of what their dad did, because he was terrible,” he explains. “Whatever it is, there’s always this sort of evaluation: ‘What kind of dad did I have?’ ‘What did my dad do in this situation?’ For most men, it’s the first time that they really think about that pretty important relationship.”
As you can imagine, postpartum depression isn’t good for anyone involved, including the newborn baby. According to a 2009 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, depressed parents are significantly less likely to read, tell stories and sing songs to their kid, and when the father doesn’t engage in these activities, the child has a much smaller vocabulary down the road (there was apparently no link between the baby-mom interactions and vocabulary at the age of two). Other studies have produced similar results, arguing that when men read stories to their children, they encourage them to use their imagination, which in turn expands their vocabulary.
So for the sake of your own happiness — and the development of your child — don’t hesitate to ask for a little help if you’re feeling like death after being presented with a new little one to watch over. Remember: A little therapy (and maybe some antidepressants if required) is a small price to pay for your well-being — and may go some way to avoiding your kid going through the same thing later in life.