The postpartum phase comes with many adjustments to parents that pose risks for stress. Postpartum depression has long been known to affect mothers, but it is increasingly common among men too, especially young new fathers. Some studies indicate that up to 10 per cent of new dads suffer paternal postpartum depression, a condition few men can bring themselves to discuss, HARRIET JAMES writes
There’s an old story about a boy who stole a fox. He was a Spartan and in the past, men of this community were deemed as soldiers who prized strength and celebrated those who withstood great pain and survived harsh conditions.
Upon seeing an older man coming, the boy hid the fox in his shirt and sadly, the more time he spent with the man, the more he hid the pain of the fox he had under his shirt. The fox had begun eating him up, first his stomach, then his intestines, till he fell down dead.
At only seven years of age, Spartan boys began training for war, but the process of weeding out weaklings commenced the minute a male child was born.
The Spartans would put the puniest babies on the mountainside to die, as they abhorred weakness. They saw them as weak men who deserved to die because all they desired was superiority, power and strength. Ultimately, the opposite happened to them, as this made them weaker.
This is by and large what has been the case among the male fraternity the world over for eons now. Men are expected to be self-reliant, brave and stoic, enduring suffering without showing it.
This, according to a study released in 2016 and published by the American Psychological Association, has been linked to mental health issues such as depression and substance abuse.
Even when they end up in such sad states, the same expectation to be macho remains at play, which is why many are taken aback when a man speaks openly about going through these issues. Recently, in an elaborate Twitter thread, popular social media influencer Rama Oluoch confessed to having suffered a condition many men shy from talking about.
“Random: Postpartum depression can affect men as well. The overwhelming feeling of inadequacy can slowly creep up on you and before you know it, everything around you is falling apart because it eats into you and messes up even your productivity.
Then you have to put up a brave face because ‘you’re a man’, and that makes it worse, so you start looking for every escape you can to cope. That was my 2017 for the longest time,” he began the thread, where he opened up about his struggle with postpartum depression (PPD), a disorder that has long been associated with women, a little before and soon after the birth of his first child.
While most people regard children as a gift from God and some get thrilled by the thought of having them, there are those who experience a major depressive episode within four weeks of the baby’s delivery. I must confess that finding man who has gone through this was like looking for a needle in a stack of hay.
Majority of the people I asked about paternal postpartum depression (PPPD), even psychiatrists who have been in the field for many years, had never heard of any man with the condition, despite having seen various “me too” responses on Rama’s thread, which could mean there are many who suffer in silence.
Samoina Wangui, founder of Post-Partum Depression Kenya has observed this trend as far as men opening up on the issue is concerned. According to her, mental illness, under which PPD is classified, is seen as a sign of weakness by the society, making men less likely to talk about it.
“While PPPD will affect about 10 per cent of new dads, it is rarely talked about. In our experience with offering support for mums and dads with PPD, one of the challenges we have faced is having the dads reach out for help.
Part of the reason for this could be how men are conditioned in their childhood – not to talk about their feelings or even show emotions and vulnerability,” she notes.
Statistics reveal that around one in 10 men experiences PPPD, also known as paternal postnatal depression (PPND). The symptoms are similar to but not exactly the same as those of maternal postnatal depression, though there are no diagnostic criteria established for PPPD yet.
In his narration, Rama confessed that his depression, before he found out that he had it, began a few months before baby Lamu was born (antenatal depression). He used to wake up with fatigue all the time, would lash out at people even when they had done no mistake, and he admitted to feeling empty and inadequate.
“You just wake up tired all the time, you start wondering why you’re not as happy as you used to be, then it finally hits you… you’re sliding into a dark place and you need to get yourself out and ask for help or talk to someone. You can’t gangster yourself out of some things. I started asking myself who I am and if this is the person that I wanted to be in future,” he went on.
The bulk of his distress were feelings of inadequacy. He would watch his wife breastfeed and take care of the baby, and wonder what role he was playing in raising the child. He also felt like the baby had disrupted their lives, in that they couldn’t go anywhere, and he had to readjust a lot of his plans to be a father, which he wasn’t prepared for.
He realised he was suppressing a lot of emotion, especially after noticing that very trivial things angered him. He felt distant from his family and also lost interest in his business, and at one point, began losing clients. The digital marketer was lucky to have noticed the trend and sought help before things got worse.
Former Hot 96 radio presenter Dennis Sila was among those who responded on the thread. “Thanks for highlighting and talking about this, man. It almost cost me everything,” he wrote. Other responses read;
“I am a first-time dad, my son Ivan is three months four days old. I relate with what you are saying 100 per cent. I have become forgetful, always in a sour mood and sometimes rude, gained over 8kg in that period, detached from my girlfriend.
Fatherhood has actually sucked the life out of me. It’s very taxing, man… staying awake up to 3 or 4 am and you have an engagement early morning. Without realising it, you find you have changed so much. As for my case, my girlfriend has realised and she tells me she doesn’t know me anymore.
I prefer staying indoors over the weekend, yet I used to go out every weekend to watch football and relax with my guys. Now what I did is buy DsTV and stock my home with drinks. My colleagues are also commenting on how I have changed.” – @JMachariaM
“Thank you so much. Scary but 100 per cent relatable. I cannot account for an entire year because I simply chose to ‘man it out’. It was even worsened by an introverted nature. God bless you big. That’s all I can say.” – @Muheavy01
When his first child was born in April last year, Eric Muinde, 34, was excited as any parent would be and looked forward to being a dad. The ultra-scan had already indicated that they were expecting a baby boy, and this was a prayer answered, as he imagined all the things he would do with his comrade.
However, as soon as the baby was born, Eric, just like Rama, began feeling anxious and fear slowly gripped his heart. The persistent crying at night made him feel so helpless, irritable and angry in their small apartment in Kilimani.
“He cried each time I held him in my arms, and I felt like he hated me. It made me feel inadequate. I was more convinced that there was something terribly wrong with me, that I wasn’t a good father,” he explains. His wife’s assurances that he was a great father didn’t help at all, and he began to isolate himself from his family and spent more time in the club.
Eric began to verbally abuse his wife and demean his son constantly. His thoughts and feelings towards his son got darker. “I hate him. I wish we’d never had him,” he one day told his wife in a heated argument. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Eric was displaying classic symptoms of PPPD.
Whereas women tend to turn their sadness and fear inward, men, on the other hand, express their depression through irritability, anger, aggressiveness as well as anxiety, says psychiatrist Joseph Irungu, who has treated men with depression.
“They are also susceptible to other manifestations such as increased use of substances for example drinking or taking drugs, addictive behaviours such as gambling or video games, as well as physical manifestations such as headaches and stomach problems,” he explains.
The psychiatrist further states that men with PPPD may also suffer the typical symptoms of depression, which include depressed mood, excessive feelings of guilt, changes in sleep and appetite, lack of interest in sex, feeling slow and lethargic as well as decreased energy. They may even have thoughts about death or suicide.
A common sign of postpartum depression in men is staying at work as much as they can. “They feel out of control and useless at home, but if they work outside of the home, they tend to stick around work even beyond when they have to because they feel valued and more in control there,” he observes.
Defining postpartum depression has been a centuries-long pursuit, having been first noted by Hippocrates in women in 400 BC. Many times, men will experience it in what is called ‘male-masked depression’. In the patriarchal African society, there’s a myth that men don’t get depressed, or if they do, they shouldn’t express it.
As a result, fewer men are getting treated or even seeking assistance for the condition. Pregnancy and childbirth are powerful and life-changing experiences for men, as much as they are for women. They can stir up strong, deep and unexpected emotions and issues.
Despite the fact that they share common signs and symptoms, men and women experience postpartum depression in different ways. According to Dr Ruth Mwaura, psychologist and director of Thalia Mental Health, one of the largest differences is the fact that women have about twice the risk of developing the condition as men.
This result in part is due to biological reasons, like genes and hormones that get disrupted when brain regions are developing in the male and female foetus. Consequently, these biological factors lay the groundwork that creates a vulnerability to mood disorders such as depression.
“Moreover, women tend to be more tuned into their emotions, and better able to describe them when depressed. On the other hand, because of denial or hiding their unhappiness, their counterpart, men, might not recognise depression, so the illness might get overlooked until it becomes more severe,” she argues.
Rama shared that talking about the issue to his partner helped a lot in dealing with it, and urged other men to do the same. “It’s serious, you can spiral out of control if you have dangerous habits,” he said.
Dr Mwaura recommends that other than opening up to others, those affected should also eat well, exercise, journal, meditate, pray or do anything that minimises stress. “It is important that sufferers deal with it, as it will also affect their baby’s development.
If you’re experiencing some of the signs of PPD for more than two weeks, don’t struggle against it or ignore it. Get help. Speak with your partner, family, friends or a colleague – whoever you feel most comfortable with,” she advises.
Post-Partum Depression Kenya is also working to create awareness on the condition, and hopefully, make more and more men comfortable enough to confess their struggle and find help before it’s too late.