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By Oyinwa Alex-Okoh

Oyinwa Alex-OkohHappy Father’s Day to all the fathers reading this post! The importance of what you do in your children’s lives cannot be understated. And we know your role is challenging. For some men, in fact, the joys of fatherhood do not come naturally as one would expect.

Although postpartum depression is a condition that is most commonly associated with women, it can also affect men. It is estimated that about 4% (possibly up to 25%) of men develop postpartum depression within 8 weeks of the birth of a child, and fathers whose partners had postpartum depression were at a higher risk of becoming depressed themselves. This correlation, however, is not a case of “misery loves company.” Scientists have proposed a theory that the father’s hormonal levels are controlled by the mother through her pheromones.

It is known that male hormone levels change when their partner is pregnant. Male testosterone levels plummet while levels of prolactin, cortisol, and estradiol rise. There is a strong correlation between low testosterone levels and depression in men, and high cortisol levels have also been linked to depression. There may be a biological significance for this change in male hormones. Lower testosterone levels would make the man less aggressive and more receptive toward the new infant, and this along with the paternal behavior stimulating hormone prolactin would promote strong father-child attachments. Now more than in the past, men are more empathetic toward their expectant partners and are more involved in child-rearing. This change might account for the higher incidences of paternal postpartum depression (PPND).

PPND is also believed to be triggered by social and/or psychological stressors, which may include perception of the loss of freedom and financial concerns associated with the new addition to the family. There are some overlapping symptoms between the sexes, such as loss of interest in things they once enjoyed doing, lethargy, and even suicidal ideologies. But there may be differences in other manifestations of depression. For example, women are more likely to cry, whereas men may withdraw.

PPND can affect the family as a unit, children in particular. Studies have shown that postpartum depression in fathers is associated with poor emotional and behavioral development in sons especially. Other studies have shown that, by the age of two, children of depressed fathers tend to have less developed language skills than their peers with nondepressed fathers and that paternal depression could possibly be linked with difficulty in infant temperament. It also has been seen that, where one parent is suffering from postnatal depression, a competent partner can help offset some of the detrimental effects on the child.

The importance of a “happy” father cannot be overstressed. PPND is a complex and multifaceted psychological disorder, and needless to say, this phenomenon is not one to be taken lightly. The problem is further compounded by the fact that many men do not recognize these symptoms and the few who do notice that something is off shy away from reaching out for help. It is important to know that, although the consequences of PPND are significant, it can be effectively mitigated with a combination of medication and therapy. The outcome of the family following treatment is very good.

PPND is a serious condition The Post- and Antenatal Depression Association, in Australia, has a How Is Dad Going?  website with information on signs, symptoms, and risk factors for PPND. WebMD has an overview of PPND treatment and care. And PostpartumMen has some more helpful resources.

So congratulations to all fathers out there! We love what you do, but don’t forget to ask for help when you need it.

Oyinwa Alex-Okoh is currently a graduate student in biotechnology at the Catholic University of America, DC. She holds a BA in psychology from American University and a premedical certificate from Elms College, MA.