Opinion

Conference one-to-one: how are you, dad?

07 November 2018

International campaigner for fathers’ mental health Mark Williams shares his story of coming through depression following the birth of his son, and how this experience inspired his fight to raise awareness and bring about change.

Mark Williams cphva

Mark Williams is leading a global fight to have the mental health of fathers recognised and addressed, as well as that of mothers.

A Pride of Britain hero and Inspirational Father of the Year 2012, he has addressed MPs, met with royalty, and spoken out extensively to raise awareness of postnatal depression (PND) and mental health issues in fathers. He’s also just given a brilliantly received presentation at the Unite-CPHVA conference in his trademark engaging style.

But there is a mountain to climb. General awareness is low, and the issue isn’t widely addressed by medical professionals. There is no mention of ‘fathers’ in the NICE Guidelines on antenatal and postnatal mental health (NICE, 2018), and WHO only acknowledges that mothers should be screened.

This is despite a growing body of evidence. Studies have shown one in 10 men suffer prenatal and postpartum depression (Paulson and Bazemore, 2010), and others have estimated paternal postpartum depression occurs in 4% to 25% of new fathers within the first year (Steadtlander, 2015). Up to half of dads whose partners are depressed go through depression themselves (Kim and Swain, 2017).

 

‘I couldn’t tell anyone…’

Community Practitioner caught up with Mark before his conference session. Mark has devoted himself to the cause of fathers’ mental health for seven years, with a passion borne out of his personal experience. But before the birth of his son Ethan in 2004 he was living a ‘normal’ life, working in sales, and ‘excited and looking forward to fatherhood’.

When his wife Michelle went through a 22-hour labour which ended with an emergency caesarean, everything changed.

‘It was the first and only time in my life I’ve ever had a panic attack – I thought my wife and my baby were going to die,’ he says. ‘I didn’t realise at the time, but after what I’d witnessed on the labour ward, I suffered with PTSD – I was very anxious, I was having nightmares. Then my wife went on to develop very serious postnatal depression. I had to give up work for six months to care for her and my son.’

Like a lot of fathers with PND, Mark says he had issues in his past, suffering low self-esteem at school, and living with ADHD which went undiagnosed until he was 40. But he had never experienced depression until after his son was born.

‘I was one of those people who said: “How can you have depression?” I didn’t judge people – but I felt there was always someone worse off. But going through depression, it was like a bubble. I couldn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling - I was worried what they would think – and I couldn’t tell my wife, because I didn’t want to impact on her mental health. I couldn’t tell my friends. I couldn’t tell my family.

‘My personality totally changed. I was really angry. I remember I punched a sofa and busted up my hand. I would start fights with bouncers – getting punched was another form of self-harm really.

‘I started having suicidal thoughts when my son was three or four months. I honestly thought they’d be better off without me. I started to think it was my fault my wife had depression. I started drinking late at night as a way of coping – I didn’t know what else to do.’

 

Life-saving moments

‘We had a lot of family support around this time; my mother-in-law came to live with us. Unfortunately, a lot of people haven’t got that support during this time.’

While his wife’s depression started to lift after a year, Mark says: ‘My moods were changing constantly. I became the best liar – putting on a smiling face all the time.’

Five years later in 2011 when, within weeks, he lost his grandfather to dementia and his mum was diagnosed with cancer, Mark suffered a serious breakdown. Looking back, he says that it was the need to be there for his son that stopped him acting on suicidal thoughts. This crisis finally brought him under the care of mental health professionals, and he began treatment.

A chance encounter during his recovery was the catalyst for his campaigning. He met another father at the gym, whose wife was ill with PND, and who himself had suffered a breakdown.

The realisation that ‘no one had asked how he was doing’ during this time sparked the idea of a support network for dads whose partners had PND. Fathers Reaching Out was born.

Only in speaking to other dads was Mark finally able to understand his experience as PND. ‘Probably one of the reasons I recovered so quickly was speaking to those dads. I felt better talking about it – and I had a purpose; I channelled all my energy into that,’ he adds.


About Mark

  • Mark, 44, lives with his wife Michelle, 41, and their son Ethan, 14, in Ogmore Valley, Bridgend, Wales. Both he and his wife now work within mental health services.
  • He ‘always questions things now’ and ‘won’t accept the first answer’.
  • He coaches Wyndham Boys and Girls football club every week.
  • He attends Cardiff City games with his son.  He relaxes with walks in the mountains and listening to podcasts.

The campaign

Over the years, Mark’s initiatives have included founding International Fathers Mental Health Day, and working with perinatal mental health expert Dr Jane Hanley to co-develop an accredited training in paternal mental health. Earlier this year his book Daddy blues: postnatal depression and fatherhood was published.

Mark’s aim is simple – to bring about a ‘more holistic approach’, with support in place for both parents to bring about ‘better outcomes’.

‘Otherwise the result is relationships ending, drink and drugs, overeating, undereating, anger and even violence, when there was none before the baby was born,’ says Mark.

‘Services are already overstretched, but this is a real problem – it needs proper funding,’ continues Mark. ‘Education is needed, not just for professionals, but the families as well – they are the ones to see it every day. It’s hard enough for men to talk about depression – there is so much stigma around that - let alone PND.

‘The question comes: “What’s he got to be depressed about? He didn’t have the baby.” But how I always describe it to friends is, if they had not got pregnant and had a baby, that man wouldn’t be depressed – in the first 12 months antenatally that is PND.’

Too often, men are excluded from the conversation, in the services and information on offer around the birth of a child, he adds. ‘That’s why I’ve launched the #HowAreYouDad campaign. Healthcare professionals should be asking that question, and we need to be educating families to look for signs and symptoms.

‘There’s no data, no screening in place, but we know that fathers are taking their own lives due to PND. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in this country, but still no one is asking dads about their mental health (see On the edge). There is enough evidence out there now, and more coming out – there are no excuses.’

Having spoken to more than 2000 dads, says Mark, ‘I know the reality. That’s my motivation; that’s what drives me. I want to make sure things are in place if my son becomes a father. I want to make sure so no one else goes through what we went through.’ 


 

Resources


 

References

Kim P and Swain J (2007) Sad Dads: Paternal Postpartum Depression. Psychiatry. 2007 Feb; 4(2): 35–47. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2922346/ (accessed 22 October 2018).

NICE (2018). Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical management and service guidance, Clinical guideline CG192. See https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg192 (accessed 22 October 2018).

Paulson J and Bazemore S (2010). Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression: a meta-analysis. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20483973  (accessed 22 October 2018).

Steadtlander L (2015). Paternal Postpartum Depression. The International journal of childbirth education. 30(2):11-13. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275950095_Paternal_Postpartum_Depression (Accessed 22 October 2018)

Top