In the days after his son was born, Rob Sandler found the thrill of becoming a new father replaced with dark feelings of dread and hopelessness. Those feelings, coupled with sleep deprivation and stress, culminated in a panic attack during his son’s bris.
As a group of old friends was saying goodbye after the ceremony, “I had this feeling that they were leaving and I was stuck in this situation that would never get any better,” said Mr. Sandler, a marketing executive in Dallas. “I just felt trapped.” What followed was months of sadness, anxiety and — perhaps most worrisome of all — a feeling of acute disappointment in his own ability to be a good parent.
In recent years, a growing body of research, and the increasing visibility of dads like Mr. Sandler, has given rise to the idea that you don’t have to give birth to develop postpartum depression. Studies suggest that the phenomenon may occur in from 7 percent to 10 percent of new fathers, compared to about 12 percent of new mothers, and that depressed dads were more likely to spank their children and less likely to read to them.
Now, a University of Southern California study has found a link between depression and sagging testosterone levels in new dads, adding physiological weight to the argument that postpartum depression isn’t just for women anymore. The study also found that while high testosterone levels in new dads helped protect against depression in fathers, it correlated with an increased risk of depression in new moms.
“We know men get postpartum depression, and we know testosterone drops in new dads, but we don’t know why,” said Darby Saxbe, a professor of psychology at U.S.C. and an author of the new report. “It’s often been suggested hormones underlie some of the postpartum depression in moms, but there’s been so much less attention paid to fathers. We were trying to put together the pieces to solve this puzzle.”
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
The idea that parents who haven’t given birth can get postpartum depression isn’t entirely new. Studies have shown, for example, that moms and dads who adopt children also show signs of the condition.
But some mental health experts question whether what fathers experience after birth is truly postpartum depression.
“There’s no question the perinatal time is one of the hardest for both men and women,” said Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, a professor of perinatal psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “But the process of birthing and the hormonal gymnastics that women experience is on a different planet.” When it comes to depression in dads versus moms, “I see them as utterly apples and oranges,” she said.
Indeed, defining postpartum depression has been a centuries-long pursuit, hobbled by a social stigma that prevents many women from acknowledging they have a problem. Women plagued by the sadness, anxiety and suicidal thoughts associated with the condition — first noted by Hippocrates in 400 B.C. — have long been told it was all in their heads, or blamed themselves for not being good enough moms.
In the past five years, several studies have shown evidence of a long-suspected link between postpartum depression and the hormonal fluctuations common to women after birth, bringing greater medical legitimacy to the diagnosis. Some of the shame and stigma surrounding the condition has also lifted as high-profile mothers like Brooke Shields, Gwyneth Paltrow and, most recently, Ivanka Trump have shared their own stories of postpartum depression.