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Study: Parents at Risk of Postnatal Depression

By Jamell Andrews

A study just released by the Medical Research Council in the U.K. reveals that postnatal depression (also known as postpartum depression), which has been well documented among women, also affects a substantial percentage of new fathers. Looking at a group of 86,957 families, the study found that 39% of mothers experience at last one episode of depression within the first 12 years of being a parent, while 21% of men experience an episode. These findings raise new questions about the emotional effects of parenting and highlight the importance of mental health treatment for young parents of both sexes.

What is postnatal depression?

Postnatal depression episodes can last anywhere from several weeks to multiple years, and they usually consist of a number of symptoms including persistent sadness, feelings of emptiness, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, reduced libido, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. These episodes can begin very soon after the birth of a child, but in other cases an episode may not begin until months or years later.

In most cases, postnatal depression cannot be traced to any single cause. In women, the hormonal fluctuations that set in soon after the birth of a child are likely a major factor, but they are not the only thing. There is also what is known as “Postpartum Exhaustion,” which results from weariness after childbirth as well as having to keep up with the baby’s unpredictable sleeping habits. Poor sleep is common among new parents of both sexes, and it can compound other factors contributing to depression.

Plus, there are a number of evolutionary theories relating to postnatal depression. One idea holds that a woman’s poor mood after birth encourages greater involvement of the father and community, which is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. However, this would not explain why men also experience postnatal depression.

The effects of postnatal depression

There have been a number of highly publicized cases of women whose postnatal depression has driven them to do terrible things, but these cases are obviously very rare. Most parents with postnatal depression are able to keep it from harming their children, but it nevertheless can have detrimental effects on the household and the parent-child relationship. The feelings can prevent a parent from bonding with the child, which can have long-term effects.

In more severe cases, especially when the depressed parent does not seek treatment, the situation can worsen. Depressed parents may not be able to give their growing children the emotional support they need, and the depression can trigger substance abuse or other mental health issues.

Treatment for postnatal depression

Normal postpartum depression should last no more than a few days or, at worst, two or three weeks. If it goes on for longer than this, it is time to seek professional help. For ongoing cases of mild depression, psychotherapy may be enough to mitigate the situation. However, where the symptoms indicate major depression and do not dissipate after a few weeks, antidepressants and more intensive therapy may be needed.

As the Medical Research Council study indicates, these recommendations don’t only apply to women. When a new father experiences depression that lasts for longer than a few weeks, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention. And if both parents suffer from depression at the same time, couples counseling with a focus on the depressive symptoms may be called for.

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