Author Topic: How FATHERS can get post-natal depression: One man's harrowing testimony  (Read 3427 times)


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How FATHERS can get post-natal depression: One man's harrowing testimony
By Lucy Bulmer
Last updated at 9:16 AM on 19th May 2009

It's not just women. As many as 10 per cent of new fathers are hit by crippling baby blues - as this man's harrowing testimony reveals.

Debby Anderson remembers vividly the first night she spent alone in her home with her young son, then 20 months. Her husband Mike had just been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was the bleakest night of her life.

'It was 3am when I got back, and there was just me and Joe. I'd never been alone like that before, and didn't know how I'd cope.'

Debby's previously happy-go-lucky husband had suffered a nervous breakdown and had tried to kill himself. 'I had no idea what would happen next or if we'd ever get him back as he was before. I knew I couldn't let myself cry or I might never stop,' says Debby, now 33.

Mike, 41, a manager in the Department of Transport, was suffering from post-natal depression (PND), a condition that affects 15 per cent of new mothers but which recent U.S. studies have shown also affects men. Indeed, it's been estimated that as many as 10 per cent of new fathers suffer from it.

In women, it is linked to a hormonal imbalance after birth, but there are many other factors involved, which is why it can affect men as well, says Dr Carmine Pariante, head of peri-natal psychiatry at King's College Hospital, London.

'Sleep deprivation, the sudden change in lifestyle and responsibilities, financial or other social worries and, frequently, relationship problems with the mother all contribute to the problem,' he says.

Men find it harder to ask for help, says Emily Wooster of mental health charity Mind. 'Our research shows that one in three men with depression feels too embarrassed to seek treatment.'

Furthermore, midwives don't look for the symptoms in men. 'Studies show that dads can be marginalised by health visitors and midwives, and as their relationship with their partner changes, they may feel left out,' she says.

Dr Pariante agrees: 'There is a definite case for more resources to see peri-natal psychiatry as a family thing and treat the couple, not just the woman.'

This lack of awareness of male PND means men often try to soldier on - with disastrous results, as the Andersons discovered when their son, Joe, was 20 months old.

'I knew Mike was feeling low, but I hadn't realised how bad,' says Debby. 'The night he went into hospital, we were having a silly row over something minor when he broke down and curled up in a ball on the floor, sobbing.

'I was utterly shocked. This wasn't the Mike I knew. I tried to comfort him, but it made no difference.'

The couple have family who live nearby, and Debby's mother and Mike's brother, John, helped her get him to A&E. 'I had to lead him to the car while he sobbed,' says Debby.

John, a paramedic, was allowed to remain in the consulting room with Mike as he was seen by medical staff.

'John came out and asked if I knew that Mike had recently attempted suicide,' says Debby. 'I had no idea. It felt like being hit by a truck.'

Mike was diagnosed with severe depressive illness with psychotic episodes - he was hearing voices. In his case, they were telling him to protect Joe, but to harm Debby.

That night, Mike was transferred to a psychiatric hospital half-an-hour's drive away from their home in Hastings, East Sussex.

With no idea how long he would be there, Debby felt bewildered and confused - made worse by the fact that she, too, was still recovering from PND.

Indeed, men whose partners suffer from the condition are at increased risk, according to a report from the charity Fatherhood Institute.

'Whenever there is a depressed mother, you have to look at the father,' says Adrienne Burgess, research manager at the charity. 'He's the one there at 3am, bearing the brunt of it.'

Debby's depression had emerged soon after Joe's birth. She'd had an emergency caesarean section and Joe was whisked away to a special-care baby unit; she didn't see him for 16 hours. 'I couldn't even cuddle him. It was very distressing,' says Debby, a former civil servant.

It was just as worrying for Mike. He remembers being in a state of shock after witnessing his wife have a major operation and then worrying that their baby might be seriously ill.

By the time Debby came home, she felt extremely low. 'I couldn't bear to go out or face anyone. I cried constantly,' she says. 'I felt unable to do the simplest things, and would hand the baby to Mike the minute he walked through the door, ignoring my responsibilities as a mother.'

After four months, with the depression worsening, Debby confided in her doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants.

Mike tried to be supportive, but it wasn't easy, he says. 'Debby would phone me at work in floods of tears saying she couldn't cope, but I couldn't just drop everything.

'I'd get home and swing straight into looking after the baby and preparing meals. Joe didn't settle into a routine for the first 18 months, so I was getting only two to three hours' proper sleep a night. I was wrung out.'

Mike was also beset by crippling worry. 'I was the only breadwinner with two dependants, and I was desperately worried about Debby and Joe. Because of her depression, Debby wasn't looking after him as she should - she'd leave him in his room for hours.'

Fortunately, Debby's diagnosis helped her to recover. 'I realised I was ill, stopped blaming myself and began to make an effort to get out and about more,' she says. And over the next year her depression began to lift.

But as Debby got better and the pressure on Mike lifted, he still found himself struggling. 'I was still worried and not getting enough sleep. I was overwhelmed by my feelings of anger and resentment.'

Realising that Mike was showing the same signs of depression she'd suffered, Debby persuaded him to see their GP, who prescribed antidepressants. But still Mike's mental state continued to decline.

By February 2004, when Joe was 20 months old, Mike was frequently taking time off work. Unbeknown to his wife, he had also attempted suicide.

'I tried to gas myself in the car in the garage. I started the engine up, but it was the thought of Joe that stopped me,' he says. 'By the time I had my breakdown, I really did hate Debby. The only way out I could see was to kill myself or kill her.'

Psychotic episodes after birth are usually linked to hormonal factors, meaning depressed dads rarely experience them. But in Mike's case, his depression was so severe it triggered deeper problems.

'I felt that because Debby was better and could care for Joe, I no longer had to hold on,' he says. Once he was admitted to hospital, Mike was given mood-enhancing drug treatment and therapy, and over the weeks began to improve slowly.

'Just being able to sleep was a big step, and made a huge difference to my state of mind and my ability to cope,' he says.

But even so, when Mike returned home six weeks later, the couple's problems were far from resolved. In fact, they almost split up.

'We weren't arguing, but it felt unbearably sad,' says Debby. 'After two weeks, Joe and I went to stay with my parents. Mike saw Joe at weekends. And as we kept meeting, the situation started to thaw.'

For Mike, it was a slow recovery to what he calls his 'better, proper feelings'. Within six weeks, he was well enough for Debby and Joe to move back.

'We talk a lot more and understand each other better now,' says Debby.

So much so that when Debby gave birth to their second child, Thomas, in July 2007, it was a different story.

'We were on the lookout for signs of depression and aware of what could happen, and if it had - to either of us - we would have contacted our local mental health team straight away,' says Mike.

'But because we'd learned so much from our experiences, we were able to take it all in our stride.'