Dads in Perinatal Care - toddler wearing head scarf in bed

Mental Health of Dads in Perinatal Care

The Fatherhood Institute ran an informative seminar yesterday around supporting men through the transition to fatherhood, looking at various issues facing new dads including the loss/change in identity, the processing of trauma, post-natal depression in men, and many more topics that all have a relevance to Dads mental health care in perinatal care.

The seminar was run to accompany the publication of their new report Bringing Baby Home which publishes research, information, and the experiences of dads who have been involved in pregnancy, birth, and post-natal care with differing levels of success.

The report found that NHS systems are not currently set up in a way that allows or encourages them to engage with dads or to assess the Dads’ needs and support them – even though the men’s own mental health and behaviours impact the mother and baby. It’s hoped that the improvement of GP Mental Health support will start to address this issue.

The evidence is showing that the perinatal time can prove to be a golden moment for encouraging and engaging in better health behaviours among dads. New Dads can be in ‘learning mode’ whereby they are being faced with a new challenge in their lives for which they do not have a relevant past experience to draw on – they want information, advice, and support, and will reach out to friends and family to help. This is a key time for professionals to engage with the Dads, but a lot of Dads feel like they are faced with a system which doesn’t wish to engage with them – in fact, they can feel dismissed and irrelevant by the perinatal support system.

The topic of language and vocabulary was spoken about – that pregnancy and birth seem to be regarded as something the mum goes through and that the dad witnesses, rather than Dad being an important part of the process.

There are structural challenges which seem ridiculous but are having a real negative impact on fathers’ experiences. Babies’ health records only allow one adult – the mother – to be included and so dads’ records are held separately if at all. The impact of this is that father’s status as also being a patient/client of the birth and of the health system doesn’t exist. We are negating the Dads’ existence and relevance.

Dads want to know – “What can I do without being in the way?”

Dads are finding themselves being cast into the role of the visitor rather than as an active participant. For a long time, it was felt that no health professional was even interested in the Dad’s experience or current mental state. Nobody was checking on the men to see how they were feeling. Progress was made as health visitors started to ask about the Dad’s mental health, but to begin with, these questions were being asked to mum – missing key opportunities to find out the truth about how these men were feeling. More recently, the health visitors are addressing the dads directly, a vast improvement in being able to catch postnatal depression in men.

Men are asking “How can I be empathic and support my partner without sounding insincere as I have not directly shared the experience of pregnancy and birth?”

The seminar discussion touched on how to validate the men’s experience and the role of Dads in perinatal care – to let them know that they are a key part of the creation and establishment of this new life, that they are not a spare part, or even worse, that they are certainly not in the way.

In around 5% of births, the biological father is no longer in a relationship with the mother and this can have additional impacts on the mental health of all parties – although around 10% of these fathers still manage to attend the birth and around 25% of the fathers are still involved with the mother and infant nine months following birth.

Dads Unlimited is a men’s mental health charity that works with separated families – and they were relaying the experiences of some of the fathers they have worked with around feeling helpless and being two stages further removed from understanding their new role in this separated family and what level of perinatal support is appropriate for them to provide without crossing the boundaries of this new separated relationship format that the parents are both still understanding and establishing.

We know that there is a crisis in men’s mental health support and around suicidal ideation in separated fathers – with 40%+ of separated dads supported by the charity have previously or currently experienced suicidal thoughts.

With the report and seminar from the Fatherhood Institute, it is hoped that system change can be accelerated to ensure that dads are an inclusive part of the pregnancy and birth of a child and that the whole experience of Dads in perinatal care can be improved.