Eastenders is to tackle a male postnatal depression storyline, featuring character Stuart Highway, played by Ricky Champ, as he struggles to bond with his newborn son.
For many parents the birth of their baby is the happiest of experiences, all smiles, snuggles and sepia-hued snapshots. But for some, dipping their toes into parenthood, and all the life-changing unknowns that come with it, can trigger the onset of postnatal depression (PND).
While there’s an awareness that mothers could be at risk of developing the mental health condition, you might be surprised to learn that dads can suffer from PND too.
Read more: Postnatal depression left dad suicidal
In fact according to the Pandas Foundation (Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support) as many as one in ten men are estimated to experience depression after the birth of their baby.
And some experts believe the number of sufferers could be higher due to the fact that men are more likely to keep quiet about their symptoms.
That's why it is so great that the soap opera's new storyline will raise awareness about the issue of PND in new dads.
EastEnders bosses said they worked closely with two mental health charities – Mind and Pandas – so the character's plight is portrayed as realistically and sensitively as possible.
In the coming weeks, viewers will see him struggling to connect with his son, Roland, eventually leading him to question his love for the child.
Research from the National Childbirth Trust (NCT, nct.org.uk) has found that over a third of new dads are worried about their mental health, and yet PND is still seen very much as a female problem.
“Men are often undiscovered in the perinatal mental health journey, which is their mental health from conception through to birth and beyond,” explains Annie Belasco, head of charity at Pandas Foundation.
“It’s only because of the courage of men who talk about how they’re feeling and go on to seek help and support, that people are sitting up and taking notice of this as a serious mental health condition in men.
“Postnatal depression as a diagnosis is becoming more common and more talked about as we educate society around this.”
According to the NCT, just like with mums, there’s no single answer as to why some new dads are affected by PND and not others.
In many cases depression is triggered by emotional and stressful events and there’s no doubt having a baby ticks both those boxes.
The increased pressures of new fatherhood, more financial responsibility, changes in relationships and lifestyle, combined with a lack of sleep and an increased workload at home, could all contribute to affecting a new dad’s mental wellbeing.
Previous mental health problems, being present at a traumatic birth, or having a partner with depression can also be contributing factors. In fact research from NCT found that almost three quarters (73%) of dads were worried about their partner’s mental health.
Watch: 5 top tips to boost your mental health
The symptoms for men suffering with PND are very similar to those of their female counterparts and can include feeling unable to cope, a sense of inadequacy, difficulty bonding with the baby, difficulty concentrating or making decisions and in some cases taking a lack of interest or pleasure in the baby.
In severe cases, some men can experience obsessive fears and suicidal thoughts.
According ton the NCT, the peak time for postnatal depression in men is three to six months after the birth, but at any time after their partner has had a baby, men may experience low mood, anxiety, loss of identity, rage, intrusive thoughts and persistent feelings of sadness.
While new dads of any age can be impacted, dads aged under 25 are more likely to have PND than older men.
“Everybody reacts to becoming a parent in different ways,” explains Stephen Buckley, head of information at the mental health charity Mind.
“But there are some common signs that you may be experiencing a mental health problem, including hostility or indifference to your partner or baby, and equally guilt – because perhaps you weren’t the person who had to give birth.”
There are physical symptoms too, like loss of sleep, changes in weight or appetite, toothaches and nausea.
“These experiences can be very hard to cope with – but with the right support it is possible to manage these feelings,” he says.
What causes male PND?
According to Belasco the triggers for male PND can be similar to that of women and can include birth trauma, adaptation to life, sleep deprivation and other significant changes to men’s lives.
In addition, Belasco says PND in men can also be triggered by a pre-existing mental health condition, or even adverse childhood experiences that are reawakened when someone becomes a parent.
Plus, the Institute of Health Visiting (ihv.org.uk) says that if a father’s partner has PND, the dad is 50-75% more likely to experience his own symptoms of perinatal mental illness.
And, perhaps surprisingly, hormones may also play a role in men’s PND. The NCT says that just as with mums, changes in hormones including testosterone, oestrogen, cortisol, vasopressin, and prolactin in men during the period after birth may make PND more likely.
How to get help
The first port of call for any parents struggling, both male or female, who think they may have PND should be their GP.
“Since it’s connected to becoming a parent, some doctors might say you’re experiencing postnatal depression – or paternal depression," Buckley explains. "Others might say the term ‘postnatal’ only applies if you’re the one who gave birth.
"Regardless of how you label how you’re feeling, if you think you need support for your mental health it’s important you feel able to ask for it.”
In addition, Pandas Foundation provides an online community for men who are fathers or carers who may be suffering with pre or postnatal depression and/or anxiety. Belasco says: “This is a safe, moderated place for fathers to be heard and share their experiences with other dads who have similar challenges.”
The NCT has the following suggestions to support positive mental wellbeing for all dads:
Share your feelings with people you trust. This could be your family or friends, a health professional or a counsellor.
Try to take some time for yourself by maintaining involvement in hobbies, exercise, or social activities, even an hour here or there can make a difference.
Take some exercise each day, like a walk with the buggy or swimming. Exercise can have a positive effect on mood and sense of wellbeing
Although many new parents experience mood changes or feel down some of the time, you may find that feelings of anxiety or low mood persist. If you have concerns about your own or your partner’s mental health, it’s best to seek help from your GP who can help you to access support services.
Support is also available through Mind and its Infoline on 0300 123 3393, or the NCT support line on 0300 330 0700.
Additional reporting PA.