Author and campaigner Mark Williams discusses the milestone commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan that if a new mum is suffering from mental ill health, support will also be offered to her partner if they are also struggling with their mental health:
Since the news of the landmark move by NHS England to provide support for dads and partners, the whole perinatal mental health world has been considering the importance of paternal mental health.
With suicide being the biggest killer in men under 45 in the United Kingdom and over half a million male suicides globally each year, it’s news I have been welcoming after years of calling for such recognition alongside other campaigners.
The reason I started my journey and wanted all new parents to be supported for their mental health came from lived experience, as well as from speaking to hundreds of fathers and learning from health professionals. I know only too well how new fathers’ depression looks different than mums – with behaviour more prone to anger, substance abuse, avoiding situations and being involved in parenting – but like mums, they might also have a history of anxiety, depression and traumas before being a parent.
The commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan would have helped me as a father back in 2004. I had my first ever panic attack after Michelle, my wife, went through a traumatic birth which I witnessed, thinking the love of my life was going to die. Michelle went on to have severe postnatal depression which, in hindsight, should have led to a stay in a mother and baby unit as she wasn’t safe and needed support from the crisis team.
After months of uncertainty, giving up self-employed work to look after my wife and son, and with a new mortgage to pay, I too was getting depressed. My personality totally changed during the postnatal period – I became angry and started drinking to cope. The only good thing was I was able to start to bond with my son because I was at home looking after my family rather than being back in work within two weeks, which many dads struggle with.
I couldn’t tell anyone how I was feeling, particularly Michelle because I didn’t want it to impact further on her mental health. I felt I had to “Man Up”, as society would tell us, and I was worried our baby would be taken away if both of us were known to have depression. I was avoiding situations, became lonely, paranoid and even broke my hand punching the sofa while having suicidal thoughts just four months after my son Ethan was born.
So much had happened in a short space of time, but I suffered for years until I was also needing help from community mental health services. Michelle’s depression also came back after looking after me, and again reached the point she needed the crisis team.
Today, Michelle works in mental health, running drop-in centres, and as an advocate from the charity that helped me. My son is the most educated teenager in his school about mental health issues, and knows he can talk to use if he is struggling.
I believe that supporting all parents for their mental health will lead to far better outcomes, not least because the number of relationships that sadly end through such pressures is high and this can be prevented. I know fathers do go into other services after the postnatal period and normally get help only when they’re at crisis point. Many new fathers like me are never diagnosed with depression or Postnatal PTSD as screening is rarely used, but things are changing for the better.
With up to 50% of dads suffering depression while looking after a partner with postnatal depression, meta-analysis found an average 10.4% of fathers were depressed both pre- and post-natally, with the peak time for fathers’ depression being between three and six months after the birth. And with recent reports from Cambridge University about the impacts on their children if dads are unsupported, this NHS support will help generations, will save money and, most importantly, save lives.
And because we know this is a global concern, the landmark move from the NHS will even help our #Howareyoudad campaign to make sure The World Health Organisation recommends screening dads and partners for their mental health wherever they are.
I believe the NHS Long Term Plan is leading the way and other countries will now follow. We still have a long way to go but I am excited to say this is the game-changer, not just in the UK, but for dads around the world.