WHEN postnatal depression hit his wife, Kham Firimanotham recognised the symptoms quickly and was able to come up with innovative ways to make sure she got the help she needed.
When it struck him, after the birth of their second child, it was a tougher haul.
What he now calls the “stubbornness” of the Australian working man persona – the fear of being thought of as weak, the belief that all he needed to do was “eat cement and harden up” and the idea he had to provide and care for his family no matter what meant postnatal depression got such a hold on Kham he ended up in hospital.
About five per cent of men experience depression associated with bringing a child into the world and while postnatal depression in mothers is the strongest predictor of partners having it too, it doesn’t always happen that way.
Experts including Dr Nicole Highett, executive director of mental health and wellbeing organisation COPE and Bob Davidson from the perinatal mental health division with the Western NSW Local Health District based in Orange, say this area of depression had largely gone undiagnosed.
Because new fathers tend not to access the sort of services mothers do – where problems are picked up – reaching men affected by postnatal depression was harder and therefore the long-term effects on mental health and the father’s relationships could be significant.
Many of the factors that contribute to men experiencing postnatal depression are the same as those for women – lack of support, lack of sleep, unmet expectations and difficulty adjusting to what is an enormous change.
But some factors are specific to men, and in particular rural men – changing social roles of dads in the family, the emphasis put on men to cope despite negative feelings, lack of opportunities to bond with the baby and worries about extra responsibilities, both financial and emotional.
“The risks for rural men differ from their urban counterparts – distance to services, stressful life events like drought, failed crops and large debts and the worry of complications for the mother during pregnancy all come into play more prominently,” Mr Davidson said.
Dr Highett said when mothers were suffering postnatal depression, fathers had the added stress of whether mum was able to cope, the isolation of living with a woman who was withdrawn and the worry of whether their child was okay.
She said some fathers described their experience of postnatal depression as feeling trapped, others as being very angry, others still as being overwhelmed.
“One of the big risk factors is high expectations of fatherhood that are not met,” Dr Highett said.
Kham Firimanotham says he first noticed the signs of postnatal depression in his wife Dieu a month or two after the birth of the first of their three daughters.
A hands-on dad, he had attended antenatal classes and read a lot in preparation for fatherhood.
“It was obvious to me she was depressed – not wanting to do anything with the baby, no interest in normal day-to-day activities, mood swings, easily agitated, lack of appetite,” said Kham.
He also knew confronting her would be met with denial.
“Until the person with depression asks for help, there is no moving forward,” he said.
Instead he found material on postnatal depression and left it around the house, hoping she would see it and start to recognise the symptoms in herself.
She did, and went to see her doctor, which in turn led to referrals to psychologists and other support services, medication, and the road to recovery for Dieu.
When similar symptoms returned after the birth of their second child, the couple recognised them early but found recovery was still a long and hard process.
Dieu reached the point where she couldn’t care for the children and they had to be put in full-time daycare, which Khan would organise.
Working five days a week, running the household and trying to help his wife took a toll.
“I didn’t recognise it at the time but I had completely neglected my own physical and mental health,” Kham said.
“I thought I had to care for everyone else in my family. I couldn’t let them down.
“Eventually I had a breakdown and spent three weeks in a mental health ward.
“That was the turning point for me. I received medication and then developed strategies to cope.”
Khan said discovering you’re not alone was a big part of recovery, as was accepting you have a condition that you will need help to overcome.
“There is a real stigma for men. We think we are bulletproof and invincible,” he said.
“If you are experiencing this, know you’re not alone.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel if you get the information and help you need.”
Want to know more? Contact Post and AnteNatal Depression Association 1300 726 306.
This article was first published in The Land's 2013 Glove Box Guide to Mental Health. To read more from the guide, click here.