The latest research on post-partum mental illness has revealed that new mothers are at risk for more than depression after giving birth. Furthermore, a new study from the University of Kansas (KU) has strengthened the data supporting the idea that new fathers are also at risk for mental health problems during the period before and after the arrival of a new baby. The study was led by KU doctoral candidate Carrie Wendel-Hummell, who will present her findings at the annual meeting organized by the American Sociological Association. Wendel-Hummell interviewed 30 new mothers and 17 new fathers in depth about their experiences as parents. All subjects in the study had prolonged symptoms of at least one mental illness, although not all had received a formal diagnosis.
New Parent Struggles Not Just Due to Hormones
For many years, it was more or less accepted that major hormonal shifts during and after pregnancy were responsible for post-partum mental illness. However, newer research suggests that many factors besides hormones contribute to perinatal mental health problems. Understanding the complexes causes of post-partum illness is, of course, crucial to efforts to effectively treat these illnesses. However, researchers like Wendel-Hummell also point out that recognizing causes other than hormones helps to add legitimacy to the struggles of parents who did not actually give birth but who still face the stress of new parenthood. While some challenges of new parenthood are still exclusive to mothers, fathers can also face challenges related to traditional family roles and societal expectations. Many men feel pressured to keep their struggles and feelings to themselves, instead of reaching out for emotional support or professional help. Some employers are also less supportive of family-friendly leave time for fathers than they are for mothers; for example, paternity leave from work is a rarity, while granting maternity leave has become an increasingly accepted standard.
Financial Stress and “Super Parent” Pressure
The new parents in the KU study had financial situations ranging from low-income to middle class. Wendel-Hummell found that every parent in the study reported experiencing high levels of stress, although the source of the primary stress varied with economic status and other factors. Low-income parents, not surprisingly, reported fears and frustrations related to providing for the basic needs of their children, from food and clothing to quality child care. While middle-class parents had less financial stress, they often struggled with the social pressure of being modern “super parents” who can work full-time and also be active, hands-on parents.
Mental Health Treatment Options Limited for Low-Income Parents
Getting diagnosed and treated for post-partum mental illness can be challenging for low-income parents, even if they have health insurance. Pregnancy-based coverage though Medicaid often ends following the first post-delivery doctor’s appointment. According to Wendel-Hummell, this means that post-partum mental illnesses may not be covered. With so many expenses involved in caring for a newborn, new parents can rarely afford to pay out-of-pocket for counseling or medication.
Mothers Likely Face Greater Risk
While Wendel-Hummell’s study suggests the importance of shining more light, both scientifically and socially, on paternal mental health during the perinatal period, research overwhelmingly suggests that mothers remain at greater risk. A 2006 study from Denmark found that men did not have a higher than average rate of mental illness requiring hospitalization or outpatient treatment during the first few months after pregnancy, while women did. However, social expectations and the significantly greater focus on maternal health after birth may be helping to disguise the struggles that new fathers face. The stress reported by the small sample of men in the KU interviews suggests that there is more to learn about the mental health problems faced by all new parents.