Post natal depression and men

19 May 2019

Interview with 

Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University

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Depression in the year after having a child is common. Up to 10% of new mothers develop what’s referred to as “baby blues” or postnatal depression, and, contrary to prevailing wisdom, it affects men too, at roughly the same rates as women. But a new study from Anglia Ruskin University, published in the Journal of Mental Health has found that while the average person is pretty good at spotting when a woman’s affected, men aren’t so lucky and so are less likely to get help. Viren Swami told Adam Murphy what he’s found...

Viren - Our study looked at how the public understand something like postnatal depression. Specifically, we wanted to know whether the British public would be able to recognise symptoms of postnatal depression when they were presented in the form of a mum having postnatal depression or a dad. So we asked participants from the British public to read a short paragraph that described two cases of postnatal depression. Both cases were identical apart from the gender of the person who was suffering; in one case it was a dad, in the other it was a mum. And we asked them to tell us whether they thought something was wrong with this individual, and if they thought something was wrong, what they thought was wrong. We also then asked participants to rate the cases in terms of how distressing they thought the case was, how sympathetic they thought the case was, how sympathetic they would be to the person, and also whether they were likely suggest that person got help.

Adam -  And what did you find? How good were the public?

Viren - Well, the public were generally quite good when it came to the female target. And when we asked participants whether they thought something was wrong, 97% thought that something was wrong when the target was a woman, but only 75% thought there was something wrong when the target was a man. And of the people who said something was wrong, 90% thought that the woman had postnatal depression so they were accurate in describing this individual as suffering from postnatal depression. When it was the man who was suffering from postnatal depression, only 46% thought that that person had postnatal depression. Conversely, the public were more likely to think that the man suffering from all these different symptoms was either just too stressed or suffering from a lack of sleep. So they explained it in a non-mental illness form rather than actually identifying correctly that this person had a mental illness.

Adam - Why might that be? Why might people be so uninclined to say that about men?

Viren - I think there are a number of reasons. Probably one of the biggest reasons is that there remains a myth in society that men can't get postnatal depression, that this is either an issue that only affects mums or women. And specifically I think that myth comes from this idea that postnatal depression is caused by neurochemical changes that result from pregnancy, and this idea then means that men, because they don't ever get pregnant, means that they can be susceptible to postnatal depression, and that is a myth. Men undergo all kinds of neurochemical changes as a result of their partner's pregnancy and that might be a contributor to postnatal depression.

I think a second reason why people are less likely to think men can suffer from postnatal depression is because of gender role stereotypes. We are socialised as a society to think that men should be stoic, men should be tough, men should be self-reliant and mental illnesses are incongruent with our ideas of masculinity. So we don't tend to think of men suffering from a mental illness as being consistent with our ideas of masculinity.

Adam - What can we do about this going forward?

Viren - I think most practically, the most practical thing we can do is to ensure that all parents, irrespective of their gender, are screened for mental illnesses or potential mental illness as they become parents. This is really important. Now how we go about doing that can also really important because having conversations with men about their mental illnesses or their mental health symptoms can sometimes be quite tricky precisely because of their notions of masculinity. They may not be willing to disclose their symptoms or may not be ready to talk openly about their symptoms, so talking about it in a compassionate way, is really important.

Related to that is the real importance of breaking down this myth that men can't get postnatal depression. This is really really important for two reasons: first if men don't think they can get postnatal depression they're not likely to seek help. Similarly to the extent that health practitioners internalise this idea that men can't get postnatal depression they may be unlikely to look for symptoms or talk to men about what they're going through.

The reality is that a lot of men do suffer and a lot of men are struggling if we're not getting them optimal health. That can result in horrible outcomes, not just for dads themselves in terms of, for example, suicide, or for the mums in terms of breakdown of the relationship with the dads, but also negative outcomes in terms of the child. Whether it's things like the dad not playing or being unwilling to talk or speak positively to the child. There are all kinds of reasons why we need to tackle this issue.

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