The conversation about how to address depression during pregnancy for the 10 to 20 percent of women who suffer from it is growing all the time. But according to research from McGill University, we should be extending mental health support to another group, too: first-time dads.
More than 13 percent of first-time expectant fathers reported depressive symptoms during their partner’s third trimester of pregnancy, according to a study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health in September.
For men who are already predisposed to develop depression, the added pressure of having a child can trigger the condition, and the earlier prospective fathers can learn strategies for coping with that added pressure, the better off they will be.
“Women tend to get screened for depression, but no one asks, “Dad, how are you doing emotionally?'” Deborah Da Costa, associate professor in McGill’s Department of Medicine and lead author of the study, told The Huffington Post.
Indeed, the findings highlight the importance of depression screenings for fathers, coupled with dad-targeted mental health resources and social support for men during the transition to parenthood.
The study surveyed 622 first-time expectant fathers in Quebec, Canada, over one and a half years, quizzing them on factors such as physical activity, sleep quality, social support, stressful life events, financial stress and martial satisfaction. To determine depressed mood, the study used the Edinburgh Depression Scale, which required fathers to assess how frequently statements such as “I have been anxious or worried for no good reason,” applied to them over the previous seven days.
Da Costa began studying maternal depression while doing her graduate work in the mid-1990s, and realized that there had been very little research done on men’s mental health during pregnancy. “The focus is on mom,” Da Costa said. “It’s mom’s body that’s changing. It’s mom whose going through all these hormonal changes.”
But paternal depression can have a long-term impact for children, too. Sons of depressed fathers, even if they were in the womb at the time of depression, are at a higher risk of behavioral and emotional problems, according to a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines in 2008.
Hormone changes during pregnancy can trigger depression in women, according to the Mayo Clinic, but the general risk factors for pre-baby depression — such as lack of partner support — are fairly similar for mothers and fathers. Still, it should be noted, these are cross-study comparisons. To date, there haven’t been very good side-by-side studies of how pre-baby depression predictors impact men and women.
While multiple factors affect who is likely to become depressed, the McGill study found that a family history of psychological disorders; lack of social, emotional or practical support during pregnancy; pregnancy-related relationship strain; the financial strain of providing for an infant; and stressful life events, such as losing a job, or a family member being ill, were major risk factors. And the strongest risk factor of all? Sleep quality. Prospective dads who reported having difficulty falling and staying asleep were likely to have higher depressed mood scores.
Providing prospective fathers with the tools to improve sleep and manage stress and depression could help expectant moms, too. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that a high-quality, supportive partner relationship during pregnancy translated into lower emotional distress for mothers and improved maternal and infant well-being. Da Costa seemed to agree. “Support from partners is so important and protective of depression for moms during this period,” she said.