Dads can suffer from postnatal depression too

This is a guest feature by Sean Butcher, as part of the Mental Health & Me ‘Community Stories’ series.

Last October I was signed off work for two weeks for mental health reasons. 

I only told a handful of people. Back then, I perhaps didn’t want people to know that I might have a “weakness”. 

But since then I’ve learned that mental health struggles can happen to literally anyone. And I’ve found that talking really is the best way to deal with it. 

I’ve always struggled with issues like stress and anxiety. I have OCD tendencies, I’m a hypochondriac, I’ve had panic attacks in restaurants, and I can get claustrophobic in crowded places. 

I generally like to be in control of situations, and can often get stressed and anxious when there isn’t “a plan”.

I also suffer from “perfectionism”. This is more of a curse than it sounds. It can mean suffering from low-self-esteem and confidence a lot of the time, because it feels like everything you do is never quite “good enough”. 

Sometimes you don’t even want to try out of fear of failure, and when you do, you beat yourself up for ages afterwards about things you could have done differently. Because of this, I can avoid really throwing myself fully into things, mainly from not wanting to f**k it up.

But beyond all of this, it was the birth of my daughter that really saw me starting to hit a downward spiral with mental health. 

This sounds crazy, right? The birth of your child is meant to be one of the best things that ever happens to you. This was certainly my perception leading up to her birth. I was really excited, if not slightly apprehensive about becoming a Dad.

And the first few weeks were great.

It’s a coincidence that the original theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was Sleep (before changing to Kindness due to the Covid-19 outbreak). Because I learned that I’d never appreciated what a good night of sleep can do for you before Rosie came along.

I was warned by so many people that the sleep deprivation you experience as a new parent was pretty tough. But I was oblivious to just how bad it would be. I’m sure everyone is able to cope differently, but for me, I found the experience awful; particularly early on. 

I was virtually a zombie at work for the first 3-4 months. I binge ate sugary food just to get enough energy to keep myself going, and put on a lot of weight. I drank stupid amounts of coffee in order to keep my brain somewhat functioning, which of course has a negative effect when you actually want to go to sleep.

Sleep is so important for maintaining normal cognitive function. This study from Harvard University states:

“In addition to the feeling of sleepiness and changes in brain activity that accompany a night without sleep, other measures of performance are noticeably altered. Concentration, working memory, mathematical capacity, and logical reasoning are all aspects of cognitive function compromised by sleep deprivation. The region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for many higher-level cognitive functions and is particularly vulnerable to a lack of sleep. As a result, people who are sleep deprived will begin to show deficits in many tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought.”

Despite the exhaustion, you end up in a vicious cycle. You become so obsessed with getting sleep that the pressure of it prevents you from actually falling asleep. And IF you do manage to drift off, you end up being woken up anyway by a baby needing feeding, changing, or just wanting a cuddle. The stress of it quickly mounts up, and I knew that my mood was being changed to something I didn’t want it to be.

Then, when you have the pressure of wanting to do a good job at work and being there for the people you manage, yet don’t feel able to perform to the level you want, it can be incredibly tough to take; particularly for someone with perfectionist tendencies. 

Rosie FINALLY started to sleep through the night after 14 months of interrupted nights – coinciding with when she started nursery and eating more food. I still remember the first night that she didn’t cry – I’d become so used to her crying out for us that you wake yourself up anyway worrying that she’s ok.

But that’s certainly not the end of it. When the sleep issue subsides, it starts to become more difficult in the day. She’s a really bright child, and demands constant attention. She’s a real whirlwind and wants to explore absolutely everything.

This can be really cute at times, but as someone who has always been independent and likes to be in control, I found it difficult. Feeling the relentless pressure of demands on my time and attention at both home and at work made me feel weary and lacking any control in my own life. I craved the time when I was just able to have some mental downtime, to unwind, to re-energise. Time just to be “me”.

I even thought that I’d find some control by acquiring a few possessions purely of my own. I got into a bit of a shopping habit for things that I didn’t really need, just for that temporary dopamine hit. I even bought a BMW Z4 (a 2 seater convertible roadster) in the hope that it would give me some “freedom” (it didn’t by the way – the novelty wore off pretty quickly and the car was an absolute money-pit). 

I was probably having a mid-life crisis, and I was only 31!

Towards the middle of last year I could tell that things just weren’t right. My once methodical brain could no longer concentrate on even the simplest of tasks. I was so scatty and unorganised. As an example, I used to look after the passports when we went on holiday – now my wife wouldn’t let me anywhere near them!

It got to the point where I couldn’t even keep myself awake in the evenings anymore, due to the intensity of the mental strain my brain was under every day. 

I had constant feelings that I was doing a terrible job as a parent, and in other areas of my life. I struggled to muster the energy to entertain Rosie, and sometimes even think about what to do with her, which further compounded those feelings of failure.

One weekend it got so bad that I decided that enough was enough, and that I needed to see my GP. At that appointment he advised me to take a couple of weeks off due to high stress.

But whilst the time off helped a bit, the lingering issues were still there. I didn’t feel like anything had changed for the long-term. So I went back to the doctor’s surgery again, and this time saw a different GP. She was fantastic, and made me feel very comfortable. This time I decided I would write all of the various things I was feeling down on paper, and literally ran through the list with her. 

Her words in reply: “These are all symptoms of depression”.

She agreed that it was a form of postpartum (or postnatal) depression, which was made worse with high stress. But rather than me being sad by this, I actually felt relieved.

Relieved that finally, someone was telling me that I wasn’t completely mad, and that something could be done about it. 

Postnatal depression is something which is well-known for new mothers to go through. But it’s becoming more widely accepted as an issue that Dads experience too. In the past I don’t think Dads have wanted to openly admit how they feel, which is probably part of why the numbers are now seemingly increasing. But also, Dads are now far more likely to get involved in the early stages of their child’s lives. I always wanted to make sure that, even though I was working full-time, my wife and I were sharing the duties, such as the number of night feeds, as much and as fairly as possible.

The thing is, becoming a parent is a HUGE change that turns your life upside down. I cannot emphasise that enough. It really isn’t a decision to be taken lightheartedly. You probably don’t realise until it happens how much of your independence literally disappears in a flash overnight. 

The GP advised I do two things:

  • Start taking the antidepressant drug Sertraline. The impact of these drugs can divide opinion and don’t work for everyone. Some even get awful side-effects. However, I personally found them to be very good – particularly early on. They definitely don’t “cure” the feelings you have, but they can help take the edge off, allowing you to feel less affected by low mood or anxiety. I’ve upped my dosage once since November, and I’m happy at that level for now, though I need to report back to the GP every 3 months.
  • To start a series of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), as part of the NHS’ Talking Therapies programme. Initially this was going to be done over the phone, though I was very lucky that my case was picked up by a local trainee therapist that offered me face to face sessions, with the premise that they would be recorded for training purposes. I knew that getting to know someone personally and establishing trust with them would be far better for me. Over the course of 12 weeks we worked through a number of issues, and she did a great job of training me to question and unpick the negative thoughts I was having. 

The key thing we identified in CBT was that I had an underlying issue of not feeling good enough (largely due to the perfectionism), and that ultimately this was causing me to be far harder on myself than I should ever have been. But since being able to question these thoughts as they arise, I am far more positive about tackling them head on.

I’d recommend CBT to anyone. Being totally honest, I was really sceptical about it at first. I thought it would be full of fluffy and patronising theory, but actually, by going into it with an open mind, I found some of the practical techniques to be really useful and applicable to a huge range of situations in life. 

You can even refer yourself for free via the NHS, without even needing to see your GP: https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/find-a-psychological-therapies-service/

So now? Things are better, but by no means “fixed”. It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible to be “cured” from depression and anxiety. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown certainly haven’t helped with a toddler that wants to be spending most of the day running around and seeing new things. Even this weekend, following a Friday evening of drinking far too much red wine, I felt awful for not feeling able to interact with Rosie as much as I wanted to on the Saturday morning. 

But using the CBT techniques, I’m now able to step back and look at the bigger picture. And ultimately, she’s a happy, healthy, intelligent little girl – hopefully this shows that we haven’t done too bad a job with her so far.

And yes, in the below picture I am wearing her pink hat. And yes, that really is a plaque we have on the wall in our garden 🙂

I just wanted to finish with some tips if you’re feeling like you’re suffering at all with any mental health issue:

  • Make time for downtime – allow yourself mental breaks. Work smart by choosing what you spend your mental energy focusing on, and make time for you. You’ll be far more productive when you’re re-energised each day than kidding yourself that the best way to work hard is to work all hours. Burnout doesn’t help anybody.
  • Seek help if you need it – go to the GP. They’re more willing to talk than you think, and you’re not “wasting their time”. If you don’t feel like you’re getting what you need, keep bugging them until you do. I’m so glad I went back after the initial visit and got the CBT referral. Keep an open mind!
  • DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF SLEEP!
  • Talk to people – there’ll be more support out there than you think. It can feel easier and more “natural” to put on a front and to hide true feelings. But don’t. I did for so long, but found that there’s far more support out there than you think, and you find this support through talking. It’s ok to show emotions. We need to break down stigma.
  • Focus on what matters – don’t try to make yourself feel better with short-term gratifications. Instead, try to focus on what is going to help you and your life in the long-term. For example, I’ve started reading lots of books around productivity and psychology to try and understand my issues, and less time on social media, news websites and shopping.
  • Most importantly – be kind to yourself, and your mind.

Written by Sean Butcher, May 2020

Sean writes about people management, culture and human behaviour at his blog, http://www.seanbutcher.co.uk/.

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