A qualitative survey of 25 fathers in UK whose partners suffered postnatal mental health problems has identified weaknesses in family support. The work was carried out by a team at Bournemouth University, led by perinatal mental health campaigner Dr Andrew Mayers.
The researchers make three recommendations:
- Health professionals and perinatal health services need a better understanding about what fathers need to support partners with postnatal mental health problems. This includes training.
- More access to support services for parents experiencing postnatal mental health problems, including in the community.
- More information and guidance for fathers about what to do when experiencing mental health problems, either their partner’s or their own.
20 of the fathers in the survey reported not receiving any support or information regarding postnatal mental illness. Two received information but found it inadequate. No fathers reported receiving good quality support directed specifically towards them. 18 fathers said better information is needed about things like warning signs, symptoms, as well as guidance on how to help their partner.
“I didn’t know how to help her.”
“It would have been good to know what to do when you suspected it [mental health problems].”
Those whose partners were admitted to a mother and baby unit were not allowed to stay with the family.
Some participants said they had wanted someone to talk to, and wanted more engagement and communication with healthcare professionals.
23 of the fathers felt their own wellbeing had been affected by their partner’s poor mental health. They reported low mood, anxiety, inability to sleep and difficulty caring for their children.
“I was scared. I could not sleep. My memory lapsed and I cried too often. Made me feel like I couldn’t be as supporting to my son.”
All 25 fathers reported receiving little support for their own mental health.
“My wellbeing was of little interest to midwives, health visitors….[I] had not given birth so had no cause for sympathy. A leaflet for my wife and a page for the fathers to read, which wasn’t enough.”
“Dads get nothing.”
“I understand the focus was and should be on my partners, but a bit of concern would have been most welcomed.”
A particular concern among fathers was around father-child bonding in these difficult circumstances.
The survey participants were identified through adverts on social media. The surveys were confidential and on-line.
Support for postnatal mental health is under review in the National Health Service (NHS) in England. In 2018, it was announced that, when a mother is referred to perinatal mental health services, the father should be screened for mental health also. The NHS Long-Term plan for England envisages more community based support for postnatal mental health. Training around perinatal mental health is being stepped up.
The lead author of this study, Dr Andrew Mayers, is charting support services for fathers that are emerging across UK: www.andrewmayers.info/fathers-mental-health.html.
This research follows earlier research by the same research team on traumatic births: How fathers respond to a traumatic birth and what services can do (UK).
Mayers A, Hambridge S, Bryant O & Arden-Close E (2020), Supporting women who develop poor postnatal mental health: What support do fathers receive to support their partner and their own mental health?, BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 20
Photo: Jill Watson. Creative Commons.