There’s no doubt having a baby is a life-changing event and while it’s well known many mothers struggle with depression or anxiety, so can fathers.
Perinatal anxiety and depression, from pregnancy through a child turning one, affect up to one in five new mums and up to one in 10 new dads, according to Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA).
A world-first online treatment program called Dadbooster aims to help fathers after their baby is born by moderate to severe symptoms of postnatal depression.
A silent struggle
For Luke Rigby, the birth of his daughter Olive in 2018 marked the start of a mental health battle that left him struggling for almost a year until he was diagnosed.
Returning to work three weeks after Olive’s birth, the 27-year-old said he ignored early warning signs that something wasn’t right.
“I think I averaged a day off a week… I’d give myself a kick up the butt, but it would only last for probably a week or two and then it becomes like a self-replicating cycle,” he said.
His turning point came when he finally decided to visit his GP.
“I booked him for a 15-minute appointment, but I reckon that lasted about 45 minutes,” he said.
“It was just me in his room sobbing and just the things that I was inside of me that I’ve never really said, even to myself, before they just came holding out … like a word vomit.”
Luke Rigby isn’t alone when it comes to dealing with peri- and postnatal depression and anxiety.
An increasing number of fathers report similar experiences.
Dadbooster to help fathers
Jeannette Milgrom, executive director of Melbourne’s Parent-Infant Research Institute (PIRI), said, through her research and development of treatment programs for women, it became apparent there was an obvious gap in treatment options for men.
“What we found is that this has not been addressed in the literature,” Professor Milgrom said.
“There have been some involvement of men and trials of providing education, but there hasn’t been any targeted treatment for depression in men.”
That’s about to change.
Professor Milgrom and her team are working on a world-first specialized web-based treatment program for depressed or anxious fathers.
Dadbooster involves six sessions along with SMS messages, regular contact, advice and encouragement to keep participants motivated.
Changes in symptoms are also closely monitored.
Professor Milgrom said the treatment was comparable to face-to-face therapy and was modified to appeal to men.
“There’s similarities in the sense that the core treatment for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy … we’ve made it very easily accessible for men … it’s a very mobile, responsive program and it’s shorter and sharper,” she said.
‘Even rocks crumble’
Australia’s mental health system to date has not been great at picking up on vulnerability in men, according to PANDA CEO Julie Borninkhof.
“Organisations like ours are really trying to break down the barriers and remind people that even rocks crumble,” Dr Borninkhof said.
“We don’t screen as readily and ask as many questions as we do of women … so the one in 10 is probably under-reported, because we also know that screening dads in the perinatal period is not as great as it is when we screen our mums.”
Dr Borninkhof said data collected through PANDA’s annual mental health checklist for expectant fathers had revealed some alarming data.
“There’s about 60 per cent of those that really do fear that they’re not going to be great dads,” she said.
Professor Milgrom said her research had identified the importance of giving a voice to the issue.
“Once men start hearing other men talking about it, it becomes very enabling to be able to share the experience and feel that it’s so common,” she said.
Hanging out together
It’s a sentiment shared by Tom Docking, founder of Dads Group, an organization promoting positive parenting for men by combining dads, their kids, a cup of coffee and a playground.
Since establishing the Toowoomba chapter a few years ago, Mr Docking said getting fathers together with their children created a supportive environment.
“From our research, it’s the presence of the child which helps to keep the focus on being better as a father, a partner, a community leader, and a benefit to himself and his own identity,” he said.
Mr Docking said the group was letting fathers know about Dadbooster and other services available.
“It’s important to realise that we can only do this together collaboratively to really address the needs of our community,” Mr Docking said.
For Mr Rigby, help from his GP and connecting with a local dads’ group gave him the support he needed.
Now, he shares his experience with others to raise awareness of perinatal and postnatal depression.
“My biggest bit of advice is to be radically honest with yourself… and ask the question about why you don’t feel 100 per cent and then go from there,” he said.