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One Man's Story Of Suffering From Male Postnatal Depression

At the age of 30, Mark Williams was happily married and expecting his first child. The traumatic birth of his son, however, triggered a six-year-long battle with post traumatic stress disorder and male postnatal depression. We spoke to the father about the unspoken trauma of perinatal anxiety.

From the moment Mark found out his wife was pregnant, he longed to cradle his newborn child in his arms. But, when a midwife gently handed over his baby boy, Ethan, in the operating room, Mark was surprised to feel absolutely nothing.

'It was like a stranger had come into my life,' the former salesman from Bridgend, Wales tells ELLE UK. 'I didn't get that overwhelming feeling of love for my son that everyone speaks of –I felt cheated. I just wanted to cut the umbilical cord and get out of that labour ward as quickly as possible.'

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Little did Mark know that his son's birth would be the start of a six-year-old long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and male postnatal depression (PND), suffered in complete and utter silence.

What is male postnatal depression?

Postnatal or postpartum depression is a mental health disorder that affects one in five women, either during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth.

Commonly resulting from previous mental health conditions, the depression is often triggered by childbirth, with symptoms that can range from feeling very low, lethargic and a sense of inadequacy, to having disturbing thoughts about suicide, self-harming or harm to family members, including the baby.

Basically, everything a new parent doesn't want to feel.

However, very few people know of male postnatal depression, which is just as debilitating and life-threatening as the disorder is for women.

'There isn't a clear-cut definition of male postnatal depression but the symptoms can be similar to those of new mothers experiencing mental health problems,' says Sarah McMullen, head of knowledge for the UK's largest charity for parents, NCT.

Earlier this year, the UK Medical Research Council and University College London found that a staggering 21 per cent of new fathers experience a depressive episode - with the highest risk being in the first year after birth - in comparison to 39 per cent of new mothers.

Meanwhile, the National Childbirth Trust estimates that 73 per cent of new fathers worry about their partner's mental health while only 38 per cent have concerns about their own mental health.

'The increased pressures of fatherhood, more financial responsibility, changes in relationships and lifestyle, combined with a lack of sleep and an increased workload at home, may all affect a father's mental wellbeing,' adds McMullen.

For Mark, it was his wife Michelle's traumatic 22-hour labour that became the catalyst for his perinatal (which means either before or after birth) depression, PTSD and first panic attack.

I didn't get that overwhelming feeling of love for my son that everyone speaks of

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'At one point during the labour the doctors came rushing in and told me Michelle was going in for an emergency C-section,' says Mark.

'We all know the jokes about new dads fainting during labour and child birth but, seeing my wife go into theatre surrounded by sharp knives, I was convinced both her and the baby would die.'

Coping with a newborn

Until the birth of Mark's son in 2004, the then 30-year-old – a self-described 'happy-go-lucky guy who was always smiling' – knew very little of mental health and the devastating effect depression, anxiety and suicide can have on family and friends.

'I'm from a mining community where I was taught from a very young age to respect 'hard' men in the Valley. Whenever you tried to talk about your feelings with friends, the solution was a couple of pints in the pub or watching football,' he explains.

But it's exactly this refusal to address the problem that can lead to huge problems. As NCT's Sarah McMullen explains: 'Unfortunately, some people hold the opinion that dads should "man up" and keep a stiff upper lip when they're depressed. This kind of out-dated attitude makes it more difficult for some men to be honest about their feelings.'

In the weeks following the birth of their son, Mark's wife was diagnosed with severe postnatal depression, forcing the new father to give up work to care for the family at home.

As time went on, Mark gradually struggled to cope with the pressures of a mortgage, lack of income, a wife struggling to cope with motherhood and a newborn. Yet, he continued to keep his concerns to himself.

'Seeing my wife unable to get out of bed some days meant I couldn't tell her how I was feeling. I didn't want it to impact on her mental health,' he explains.

It wasn't long before Mark spiralled into the depths of depression.

He adds: 'Four months after Ethan arrived, I started to get suicidal thoughts. While I didn't make a plan to kill myself, I remember regularly thinking that if a bus hit me, at least I wouldn't have to live with the agonising feeling of hopelessness.'

To numb his pain, Mark turned to alcohol, gambling, over-spending on credit cards and changed jobs constantly. 'We wracked up a debt of £17,000 during this time. I'd often pretend to go to work and head home or go for walks in the mountain, instead,' he admits.

Meanwhile, his personality altered drastically.

On one occasion, Mark remembers cutting his hand after punching the sofa, whilst changing his son at 3am in the morning resulted in the most unexpected of outbursts.

'He weed all over me while I was changing his nappy and I remember walking downstairs and shouting at the top of my lungs "I can't cope with this anymore",' he recalls.

Whenever you tried to talk about your feelings with friends, the solution was a couple of pints in the pub or watching football.

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During a friend's stag-do, Mark even tried to start a fight with a bouncer, despite never having shown violent traits before in his life.

'I didn't want them to beat me up - it was a case of wanting to be hit,' he explains. 'I now know that this violent streak was a form of self-harm. A lot of people think self-harm is just cutting, but it's anything that takes away an unwanted emotional feeling. I'd never been so angry in all my life.'

After almost six years of undiagnosed depressive episodes, Mark's world was turned upside down again - he lost his grandfather to dementia and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. In 2011, he had a mental breakdown.

'I'd become increasingly angry and used alcohol as a coping mechanism to black out dark thoughts,' he explains.

I remember walking downstairs and shouting at the top of my lungs "I can't cope with this anymore"

In the days following his breakdown, Mark found himself incapable of getting out of bed and completely lost hope for his marriage. Despite suffering with crippling mental health issues for years, he was still reluctant to seek professional help for fear of having the word 'depression' on his medical records.

On the up

During a pregnant woman's first antenatal appointment, and meetings with midwives, GPs and health visitors during pregnancy, the NHS provides several mental health screenings to discuss any problems, and the services available for mother and baby.

However, earlier this year the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) urged doctors to improve their efforts to screen all mothers for depression and anxiety in the weeks after giving birth, following a worrying NHS report which found huge discrepancies in the quality of treatment that new mothers receive.

But for Mark, this isn't enough.

'Nobody is talking about fathers,' he says. 'Out of 51 pages of the antenatal and postnatal mental health clinical management and service guideline (CG192), there's no mention of dads.

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'Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45-years-old, yet we're not screening fathers. Why? A lot of men who are new to fatherhood are getting diagnosed with depression but, like me, they might be suffering from PND. I want to see mothers and fathers screened.'

After his breakdown, Mark sought professional medical help and was finally diagnosed with underlying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as well as PTSD and perinatal depression from the birth of his son.

'If someone had sat me down for five minutes and explained to me what was happening during my wife's emergency C-section, this might have been avoided. Communication during labour impacts on a father greatly,' he says.

Recovery and to the future

Following his breakdown, Mark found help via counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness.

As a result of his experience with PND, Mark went onto train in perinatal mental health and founded the 'Fathers Reaching Out' - an organisation to raise awareness of the detrimental impact that PTSD and postnatal depression have on both fathers and families.

He's since been awarded 'Local Hero' at the Pride of Britain Awards and, last year, was chosen to meet the Royal Family on Worlds Mental Health Day to discuss perinatal mental health.

Despite physically feeling fit, my mental health was in tatters.

But despite his phenomenal success, Mark's PTSD and PND is far from cured.

'Michelle and I decided we didn't want any more children after what we've been through. The idea of my wife being pregnant put me off sex for a long time and even the thought of going onto a labour ward terrifies me,' he says.

'Some of the dads I've spoken to over the years who have experienced a traumatic birth say the thought of a second childbirth is terrifying. It's like telling a guy in the army with PTSD to get back into action.'

Mark also admits he now gets 'no pleasure of knowing anyone who is having a baby'. 'I try to avoid babies as much as possible now. Before, I couldn't get enough of them,' he admits.

But, when it comes to his relationship with his son, Mark couldn't be happier.

'I want to give Ethan the best childhood possible. We play football together and have season tickets to our favourite team in Cardiff. I love being a father but, I certainly didn't feel this way during the early years,' he says.

Having endured years of suffering in silence from mental health issues as a result of his son's birth, what advice does Mark have for expectant and new parents who might be worried of how to cope with the demands of parenthood?

'The quicker you find help, the quicker the recovery,' he warns.

'Being a parent is like using an oxygen mask during an emergency on an airplane - put in on yourself first before helping others. If you can't look after yourself, how can you look after your family?'

For more information on male post natal depression and mental health issues that can affect fathers during pregnancy and after birth, head to the NCT and Fathers Reaching Out.

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