In Studio: Oakland psychotherapist talks about postpartum depression in fathers

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — We know about postpartum depression for new moms, but it also affects some dads.

Oakland psychotherapist Dr. Will Courtenay told KRON4’s Marty Gonzalez that dads can also get postpartum depression.

Dr. Courtenay says a 2010 study that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) helped put paternal postnatal depression on the map. That study of 43 previous studies showed that 14% of U.S. dads are at risk for postpartum depression. This percentage increases to over 25% during the 3- to 6-month period after a father’s child is born.

A new study, published in the September issue of the journal Hormones and Behavior, reveals ­­­that low testosterone increases a father’s risk of postpartum depression. According to Dr. Courtenay, this finding extends previous research. “Recent studies have linked low testosterone with depression in older men. So, it makes sense that new fathers would become depressed if their testosterone levels are low.”

This study highlights the importance of addressing the hormonal changes new dads experience. “When we think of hormonal changes and childbirth, we usually think of pregnant women and nursing moms. But men’s hormones change too – both during pregnancy and after their babies are born,” says Courtenay. Not only do their testosterone levels decreases, their estrogen levels increase. Courtenay adds,

“Changes also occur in the levels of prolactin – which we associate with nursing moms – as well as levels of cortisol and vasopressin, a hormone that appears to play an important role in parent infant bonding.”

Researchers believe that all of these hormonal changes help to foster a stronger attachment between parents and their infants. Fathers with lower testosterone, for example, are more sympathetic and responsive to an infant’s cries. “Lower testosterone is a normal part of fatherhood,” says Courtenay, adding, “But it seems there needs to be an optimal drop in testosterone to benefit a father and his family. One way to think about postpartum depression in fathers is nature run amok.”

Although these new fathers are in pain, their depression typically goes untreated according to Courtenay, who holds a doctorate degree from U.C. Berkeley and has served on the clinical faculties of Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Francisco. “Too often these men don’t get the help that they need. That’s extremely detrimental not only for these men, but for their children during these critical first few years,” says Courtenay. “A father’s depression has a long-term impact on the psychological, social, and behavioral development of his kids.

Courtenay, who is also the founder of the only online resource for fathers with postpartum depression, SadDaddy.com, has also conducted research of over 4,000 fathers in collaboration with McLean Hospital at Harvard Medical School. His findings show that postpartum depression is also linked with the baby being unplanned or unexpected, the father unhappy about the gender of the baby, the baby having health problems or being colicky, and the baby having breast-feeding or bottle-feeding problems.

TIPS

“The best way to prevent postpartum depression in men is,” according to Dr. Courtenay, “to address what we know are potential causes before they occur.”

  • If a man has a history of depression, he should see a mental health professional before his child is born and anticipate the possibility of depression postpartum.
  • If he and his partner have a difficult relationship or poor communication, they should see a couples’ counselor before their child is born.
  • If the father has economic concerns about supporting his family, rather than avoid or put off thinking about this, he should look at his finances and set up a budget ahead of time. This will do a lot to relieve his stress.
  • If he and his partner don’t have a lot of social support, they should try to develop and increase their support network before the little one arrives.
  • The mother’s support of a depressed father is critical. It’s often difficult for new mothers – who often hope their husband or partner will be “the rock” for the family – to accept that their partners are depressed. And new fathers really need to know from their wives or partners that they won’t be rejected, shamed or ridiculed because they are suffering from depression.

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