Beyond Daddy Blues
I’m a neuroscientist and therapist. Generally, my work focuses on maternal mental health for a number of reasons — but primarily because I think that maternal mental illness effects on the mother has only recently been getting the attention that it deserves. Thus, I would like the focus to remain on mothers. But, am I being fair? No. Anyone who struggles with a mental illness, especially a parent, deserves support and to feel well.
Recently we’ve seen many more fathers talking about their struggles with mental illness and breaking the stigma of being “strong and silent” and becoming “brave and open” (a phrase I’ve stolen from author Elizabeth Lesser in Cassandra Speaks). This is impressive and I have faith this trend will continue — where we focus on the perinatal mental health of all parents.
In July of 2021, a NYTimes article was published titled: “I Gave Birth, but My Husband Developed Postpartum Depression” bringing much-needed awareness to this ongoing and often overlooked mental illness in fathers. The author writes, “While maternal postpartum depression is widely discussed and recognized as a serious health issue, it’s often hard for people to take seriously the idea of a man having similar problems. My husband, for one, found it “ridiculous.” ” Ironically, her husband ended up being the one diagnosed with postpartum depression.
A recent meta-analysis, a review of the literature that combines data from many studies to get a more complete picture of effects, on the prevalence of depression in fathers, reports that nearly 1 in every 10 fathers struggles with depression.
Not surprisingly a couple’s relationship suffers from perinatal depression, and research reports that if one parent has depression there is a high chance that the other parent will have depression as well.
Let that sink in for a minute.
That means there is a pretty good chance that both parents are depressed if one gets a diagnosis of perinatal depression. Imagine the difficulty of trying to care for a newborn when neither parent is feeling well.
I also want to note here that I’m talking about fathers as they are the most studied partner in a parenting relationship, but that is changing.
It takes two.
Often the mother bares the ‘blame’ for how a child will develop. There is no denying that there is an impact of early life stressors on child development but these are not always related to the mother. Mothers are often the key to healthy development. Fortunately, recent research shows that a father’s mental illness and stress can impact child development too.
When depression is involved, treatment is needed. Much of my research over the past 15 years is based on how antidepressant medication use during the perinatal period affects the mother and developing offspring.
I want to mention here that my research, and the clinical research available on this topic, points to the importance and safety of treating maternal mental illnesses with antidepressant medications. Effective treatment, when clinically indicated, is the best option for both the mother and child — so stay on your meds if they are helping you feel well.
Apart from moms’ mood and medication use during pregnancy, I’ve also been curious about how dads’ mood and antidepressant medication use affects the developing child — something we don’t study much because there often lacks a direct link between the medication and the child.
This year a scientific study was published that got me thinking a bit more about this issue of perinatal mental health and antidepressant medication use in both parents.
The study investigated the long-term effect of moms’ and dads’ prenatal antidepressant medication use, as an indicator of their underlying mental illness, on the risk of mental health struggles in their offspring during the teen years. This was done in order to better understand the enduring effects of perinatal mental illness and antidepressant medications on development.
To do this research population-based health linked data was used. This means that the researchers accessed basic medical information from thousands of people in the medical system of the country they were doing their research (in Denmark). This data is limited as it provides very basic information. For example, the researchers didn’t have details of specific mood or anxiety symptoms or levels of stress — so more research would be needed in this area.
What the researchers found was that antidepressant medication use during pregnancy, in both mothers and fathers, impacted the mental health of their offspring as teenagers. Before you think that perinatal exposure to medications are not a good thing hear me out.
First of all, if dad’s medication use during pregnancy is related to offspring mental health then that means it’s not the direct effect of the medication from the mom crossing the placenta to the developing child that is a problem — that is, moms shouldn’t feel guilty about taking their meds during pregnancy.
Second, the authors point out that, although they investigated antidepressant medication effects, what this indicates is that the severity of the underlying mental illness of each parent is having an impact on child development. The authors go on to speculate that it is likely genetic and/or environmental factors that are important key components playing a role here. Things such as biological make-up or stress in the home may be playing a role on the mental health of offspring.
I’ll admit this isn’t great news because it does show that perinatal mental illness in parents can contribute to poor mental health in offspring. But, what it means to me is that the mental health of each parent is important — not just for the parent but for their child as well.
It’s not all about the mom. Dad’s mental health is important too