A man's mental health can be a complex beast, and the experience of the past 3 months has taught me that despite the best preparations, we all need support at some point in our life.
Just over 3 months ago, I became a new dad to a beautiful little girl.
And in amongst the cathartic beauty of watching someone you hold so dearly grow so quickly, the bonding of a new family, the sleep deprived nights and often stressful days, the first smiles and the many nappy changes - I have also watched the impact that this transition into parenthood has had on my mental health, as a 30 year old male. Amongst the mercurial moments of absolute joy, there have equally as many moments that have challenged my mental resilience like never before; and it has highlighted to me the perceived lack of social support for new dads.
In saying that, it is important to preface with an acknowledgement of the genuine toll and resilience that is shown by mums as the traditional primary caregivers of new babies. I now have a new and utterly wholehearted respect for mothers who sacrifice so much for the betterment of their new bubs that they cared for, for 9 months in utero. The prioritisation of a mother's mental health must be an absolute priority.
But coming from my position as a father, and as a man, my experience has been a similarly challenging and albeit different path. I have rarely cried in my life, but it is a little more common now. I once took a great deal of pride in my image, now replaced with a twinge of shame in front of the mirror. I once felt I had incredibly strong friendships with my mates; more recently I lack the motivation to reach out and check in. The effects of perinatal depression can be varied in their impact on new dads, but the hidden toll is more widely dispersed than I would have assumed. And here I was, just entering into what I had assumed to be just the next stage of my life. Despite the many conversations with men older than I, or first time dads, I was unable to mentally or physically prepare for the rigorous nature of the transition.
In reviewing the statistics around new fatherhood, it is clearly a richly transformative experience, but also a time of mental health risk. 1 in 10 men will experience depression in their first year of fatherhood, a rate that increases to 1 in 4 if a partner also experiences PPD. Mental ill-health in new fathers usually onsets gradually, peaking between 3-6 months after babies birth, and can present through irritability, frustration, indecisiveness, anger and withdrawal. It is a product of the consistent sleep disturbance, exhaustion, changes to parental intimacy and general stress associated with new tasks previously unknown. In my personal experience, it is also a product of the interruption to long held routines - weekly exercise, shared beers at the pub or an afternoon walk for some time alone. To reference back to a previous Mendl blog post #6 - A Neuroscience to Wellbeing, the experience of new fatherhood for men can result in a decrease in testosterone, and increase in oxytocin and cortisol, raising their risk of depressive symptoms.
Being a Co-Founder of Mendl, and having engaged in so many rich conversations about the prioritisation of men's mental health, I had assumed I would have the tools to prepare for being a new dad. In my eyes, the bedrock of my mental health was formed through strong routines, a stoic approach to the day to day, and a drive and perseverance to persist when times grow difficult. I am readily aware of my need to lean on mates when I need to, and make an effort to prioritise my own mental wellbeing. All of which, in my experience, are common masculine traits.
But under the duress of exhaustion, lack of sleep and a juggling of a new work, life and home balance, I very quickly began to lose hold of these pillars. And to be frank, it has shocked me. It has become significantly more difficult to motivate myself to act on efforts towards good mental health. And I was very quickly left with the stark reality that mental ill-health takes no prisoners, and even the most stoic and prepared can feel it's nasty effects at some point in their life; particularly when they least expect it.
Becoming a new dad is a defining moment in a man's life, and I would argue that perhaps there is no greater representation of a man than the way he acts as a father. But in becoming one, I can now also see how vulnerable men can be.
I want to prioritise my mental health for my beautiful new daughter, of whom the moments we share I absolutely cherish. I want to prioritise it for my amazing partner, the most resilient and positive woman in the world; for my parents, and for my friends that probably miss their close mate. But for the first time in my life, I don't feel like I have the answers as to how to achieve this, nor am I able to structure and prepare for the next few months, given the experience as a whole is ever changing and fluid.
If you know a new dad - reach out and check in, because I know they could use it. The external façade is likely a tired and worn out smile, which hides a deeper strain. All men, particularly the dads, could use support and regular conversations. A man's mental health can be a complex beast, and the experience of the past 3 months has taught me that despite the best preparations, we all need support at some point in our life. As men, and as mates, we are in it together, so as always - let's look out for each other.
To get in touch with mental health support services, click here.