November 17, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
In Scotland, national health services make a strong effort to see to and help with parents’ mental problems that often attend pregnancy and the birth of a child. Now, when I say “parents,” I actually mean “mothers.” The program, Perinatal and Infant Mental Health was established last May and announced it would be making £1 million in grants to non-profit organizations working in perinatal mental health. So hundreds of organizations that try to help new fathers with the mental/emotional challenges of paternity applied for a share of the funding. All were denied (Edinburgh News, 11/4/20). Not a single fathers’ group received so much as a brass farthing.
The government defended its decision saying that four (out of 15) organizations that received funding include fathers in their services. What that amounts to of course is that, since fathers aren’t explicitly excluded from those services, well, they must be included.
The reality appears to be quite different.
As part of their ‘How Are You Dad’ project training health professionals to ask dads about mental health, the charity found that a quarter of fathers said they feel like they can’t cope and around half sought help – but more than 80 per cent of those who looked for professional help found it hard to access services…
Thomas Lynch, service manager at Dads Rock, said the charity has seen a massive increase in calls for help from dads: “When there’s a new baby that can be a real crisis point for the whole family. But health visitors are so stretched, so they often focus on mums…
After his son Malcolm was born in January Seamus Skinner, from Edinburgh, struggled with mental health but felt he couldn’t talk to health services.
“I was suffering from depression and anxiety before and have taken medication for it for years. It definitely got so much worse after our son was born. I felt so isolated and there was so much uncertainty. I’d asked for counselling in the past and was told my problem wasn’t ‘severe enough’ so it’s not something I felt I could push for.
Little noted by public health services and mental health professionals, fathers often suffer from post-natal depression (PND) just like mothers do. The science on that is pretty well established and why wouldn’t it be? The almost-certain cause of PND is the extreme fluctuations in hormone levels women undergo during pregnancy and shortly after birth. Of course fathers undergo their own hormonal changes, sometimes mirroring those of their partner. Plus, the challenges of caring for a newborn are, by themselves, daunting. Add parental depression to that mix and parents can often need outside help just to keep moving forward. So it’s no surprise that fathers may battle mental health issues before and after the birth of their children.
But state-provided services continue to focus almost exclusively on mothers. That’s bad enough simply because fathers tend to be left out of the picture. But it’s doubly so because the single greatest risk factor for paternal PND is the mother’s PND. Stated another way, if the health system is treating a mother for PND, it should probably be treating her partner as well. But it tends strongly not to.
That information comes to us courtesy of the excellent Dr. Anna Machin whose book “The Life of Dad” I’ve reviewed and referred to many times. Machin also points out that inattention to the mental health of parents has profound effects on the mental health and social functioning of their children. Children whose parents suffer PND tend to have poorer outcomes on a range of psychological and behavioral measures than other kids. Examples include social withdrawal, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD and attachment disorder. Those have all been correlated specifically with mental problems in fathers.
And poor social functioning in kids impacts the national treasury since they require greater mental health support, educational support, tend more toward crime and incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse than other kids, etc.
So you’d think that governments everywhere would be attending to the mental health of fathers, but, as Machin rather exhaustively reports, they don’t. The failure of the Scottish government to provide any money at all specifically for fathers’ perinatal mental health is, sadly, more of the same.
Kudos to Fathers Network Scotland for raising hell about the issue.