The transition to parenthood is stressful. As a society, we tend to focus much of our attention on the mother when anticipating the birth of a new baby. Increasingly, we are aware of the mental health impacts affecting postpartum women: maternal depression affects 25% of women during pregnancy and affects 10% to 15% of women during their first year after delivering a baby. Less talked about is the mental distress and depression experienced by men during their transition to fatherhood. Mood disorders among new fathers are not as well studied, but there is emerging evidence that their mental health experience parallels that of women undergoing the same transition. But unlike women – who come into more regular contact with health care providers during prenatal and postnatal checkups – men are less likely to be screened for their mental health during this time.
Sources of Stress
For a man about to become a father, it can be difficult to engage with the reality of the change in their lives that is about to come even as their partner is already managing the month-by-month physical progression of pregnancy. The transition for men begins as a psychological one: they must figure out how to prioritize their own wants and needs against what’s best for their partner and for the health and safety of their growing family. While the labor and birth of their child is an intensely emotional experience, the first months and years of becoming a father come with many learning curves and hurdles. Here are some of the sources of stress men encounter as they become fathers:
- Balancing work responsibilities with new demands at home
- Changing relationship with the mother
- Concerns over their ability to parent
- Confronting past trauma from their own childhoods
- Fear over caring for a newborn and infant
- Lack of pregnancy knowledge
- Lack of time for self-care or exercise
- New financial worries
In addition, many men grapple with who they want to be as a father. Past generations may have been raised with defined, traditional gendered roles for men and women. Fathers today are more engaged at home in ways that their own fathers may perceive as “weak” or “feminine.” Coupled with the sleep deprivation that typically accompanies the first months and years of parenthood, these sources of stress can contribute to increased anxiety, depression, psychological distress and fatigue in new fathers.
Changes in Physical Health
Studies have indicated that becoming a father can affect men’s physical health as well.
- “Dad brain” is no joke: during the first four months of caring for a newborn, there are changes in the volume of gray matter in a father’s brain, specifically in the areas that are involved in decision-making and motivation.
- Fathers live longer than men without children, even when taking marital status into account.
- Men may gain weight and feel less healthy.
- Men say they drink less.
- Testosterone levels decline as men become more parental during a pregnancy and while providing infant care.
Impact of Depressed Fathers on Families
A father’s mental health has a significant impact on the health of their family, including their child’s health and development. That’s because fathers with depression are more likely to have poorer behaviors as a parent. This leads to less engagement with their children, more stress and an increased risk of child neglect.
Signs of Depression
Depression is a mood disorder characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness or loss. People become withdrawn and disinterested in normal activities, impairing their quality of life. Prevalent symptoms of depression include:
- Aches, pains, headaches, or stomach problems
- Frequently feeling sad or anxious
- Irritable‚ easily frustrated‚ or restless
- Overeating or undereating
- Overwhelming feeling of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
- Withdrawing from people and activities
Persistent symptoms of depression that last longer than two weeks are a sign that an individual may need professional help to learn ways to manage their stress and emotions. Talking to a primary care physician is a good first step if an individual is concerned about their mental health. Providers can evaluate whether further treatment is needed from a mental health provider. If there’s any immediate concern about suicide, seek help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network can help members find an in-network mental health professional by calling behavioral health access lines listed below:
PPO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-762-2382
- A free and confidential resource that’s just a call away when you need immediate support. Behavioral health professionals answer, 24/7.
HMO: Behavioral Health Access Line | 1-800-482-5982
- Connect with a behavioral health clinician if you need help finding a mental health or substance use provider.
- Behavioral health clinicians are available for routine assistance from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For urgent concerns after hours, clinicians are also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Learn more about mental health and options you have as a member to seek help at bcbsm.com/mentalhealth. William Beecroft, M.D., D.L.F.A.P.A., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. More from MIBluesPerspectives: