There’s been a discussion in the media recently about men who develop depression after the birth of their child. The crux of the debate centres on whether or not this can be called “postnatal depression”.
As with most internet debates, there’s no overriding consensus. There are arguments for and against, and both sides are defending their position passionately. Still, I can’t help feeling that we’re all missing the point.
One of the most common misconceptions I’ve seen in this debate is that it can’t be referred to as postnatal depression, because postnatal depression is caused by the sudden flood of hormones a woman experiences after giving birth. I know this is generally accepted as the cause of the baby blues, but these don’t last longer than two weeks after giving birth. While the baby blues are horrible, they’re a world away from postnatal depression.
Postnatal depression is believed to be caused by a number of factors, and hormones are by no means the only – or even the biggest – causes. Your life has been turned upside down overnight. You’re dealing with sleep deprivation and the weight of responsibility pressing down on your shoulders You may be feeling isolated, and scared of what’s to come.
None of these feelings are exclusive to women – so why do we insist that postnatal depression is?
In general, the naysayers fall into two distinct categories. The first is those who insist that men struggling with depression need to “man up” and “grow a pair”. I’d like to imagine that these are trolls and keyboard warriors, but it’s an attitude that seems to be prevalent in real life too. I’d simply like to direct these people towards the statistics regarding suicide in young men. That’s the damage caused by repressive attitudes like theirs.
The second group is those who accept that men may be depressed after the birth of their baby, but that it shouldn’t be called “postnatal depression”, or given the same “status”.
I have several problems with this. First, let’s look at the semantics. “Postnatal” denotes the period after childbirth. Assuming the father was present at the birth and in the time afterwards, it’s fair to say that he experiences the postnatal stage too, so there’s no reason why the term “postnatal depression” couldn’t apply to him.
Secondly, what damage does it do if we acknowledge “male depression in the postnatal period” as “postnatal depression”? Does it devalue what women experience? As a woman who experienced postnatal depression, I can’t see how denying men a diagnosis and treatment would benefit me in any way. It doesn’t devalue what women experience any more than non-parents with clinical depression devalues postnatal depression. Mental illness is not a competitive sport.
Regardless, all this debate manages to do is spectacularly miss the point. We’re thankfully edging towards an era of more understanding and support for people with postnatal depression. Women are speaking out about their experiences and breaking the taboo that has existed for far too long. The taboo hasn’t benefited everyone – so why are we now trying to apply the same taboo to men?
Overwhelmingly, the advice offered in articles, interviews and blogs from women who have – or have had – postnatal depression, is to talk. We tell people to reach out and ask for help.
Men are doing this. They are telling us that they are struggling in the wake of the huge life change parenthood brings. They’re reaching out for help. When we’re not telling them to “man up”, we’re ignoring them, because we’re too busy arguing about whether it’s “just depression” or “postnatal depression” or “parental depression” or whatever new name we come up with to define a boundary between Them and Us.
It doesn’t matter what it’s prefixed by. Depression is a serious illness that is increasingly fatal when untreated. Instead of arguing about what to call it and who has it worse, why can’t we focus on breaking down barriers, removing the taboo and supporting everyone?
No baby should lose a parent; especially not because while the parent was pleading for help, the world was more focused on the words they were using.
If you are struggling with perinatal mental health, PANDAS is a fantastic resource for support and advice.