The first step in tackling a problem is to recognise it exists. Yet that’s proved the biggest obstacle to helping new fathers struggling with depression. Associate Professor Richard Fletcher, who leads the Fathers and Families Research Program at the University of Newcastle, recalls a large-scale survey run by Beyond Blue in 2015. “One of the questions was, ‘Can dads get postnatal depression?’ he recalls. “And about 50 per cent of men and women said ‘no’.”
Unfortunately, the real picture is less optimistic. Having a baby forces a life-scrambling adjustment that can take a savage toll on both parents’ mental health. More than one in seven new mums and up to one in 10 new dads experience postnatal depression each year in Australia. For some, the difficulties start even earlier: up to one in 10 women and 1 in 20 men experience antenatal depression (ie in the lead-up to the birth of their child).
For dads, the fall-out from this can be wide-ranging. Depression can manifest itself in multiple forms from irritability to aggression and the increased use of alcohol and drugs. It can affect your relationship with your partner and, as Professor Fletcher found in previous research, damage your child’s social and emotional development.
Luckily, new dads are about to get a lot more help. For the first time in Australia, new fathers will be screened for depression through a state health service. NSW Health has launched a Focus on New Fathers program that will use SMS4dads, a digital tool to help expecting dads or those with a newborn by providing useful info throughout this massive life transition.
Developed by Professor Fletcher and Newcastle Uni researchers, SMS4dads sends three texts per week with tips and info about infant development to fathers’ phones from 16 weeks into the pregnancy until the baby is 12 months old. The texts are written from the perspective of the baby to help foster a closer relationship between dad and child. “So before the birth, a text might be ‘My first poo will be black and sticky. I’m working on it right now’,” Professor Fletcher explains. “Another one would be: ‘Dad, in the first year, I’m going to triple my weight. Don’t let this happen to you’.”
Crucially, the new version of SMS4dads incorporates the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, which is widely used to monitor mental illness. Elements of the scale will be embedded in the SMS4dads text messages at five points. Fathers who exhibit signs of distress will subsequently be contacted by the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia helpline.
“We know that a father’s mental health is vital to a well-functioning family and health services recognise that dads can be depressed too,” Professor Fletcher says. “But this is the first State health service to pilot screening for fathers as part of health service provision on this scale.”
The scheme will provide an early source of intervention for struggling dads. More broadly, it also signals hope that the mental health of fathers is finally being taken more seriously.
If you’re a new or expecting dad in NSW then sign up to SMS4dads here. If you’re a dad anywhere else, contact your local health minister to ask them why it’s not available in your area. The quicker this project goes national, the better it’ll be, not just for dads, but for new families everywhere.