If a new mother experiences symptoms of depression, social and health services should also check on the fathers, says researcher Eivor Fredriksen.

A mother’s postnatal depression can be passed on to the father

Depression before and after birth can be contagious. Particularly in relationships that experience a lot of uncertainties.

Around 17 per cent of new mothers in Norway experience postnatal depression, according to a study from 2018. This number has doubled during the last 15 years.

But what of fathers?

New Norwegian research finds that postnatal depression, also often referred to as postpartum depression, in a mother can be contagious.

“We saw that if the woman had symptoms of depression just before birth, then symptoms of depression after birth increased also in their partner”, says Eivor Fredriksen to Kilden kjønnsforskning.no.

“A key to understanding why this happens in some couples, is that several of the men and women who reported symptoms of depression had already experienced a form of uncertainty in their relationship.”

A wake-up call to include fathers

Fredriksen is Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Oslo. She has analyzed data from 1000 pregnant mothers and fathers who were followed throughout the pregnancy.

Two types of uncertainty within the couple’s relationship made them vulnerable to depression.

The first was not receiving enough affirmations and being scared of being left by your partner. The second was an experience of things becoming a little too intimate.

“Among those who reported these uncertainties, we saw that depression could be contagious both ways”, Fredriksen says to Kilden kjønnsforskning.no.

Fredriksen recently received an award for her doctoral dissertation Depressive symptoms in the transition to parenthood: Patterns, processes and child outcomes.

The researcher believes her findings should serve as a wake-up call for the social and health services.

“When the social and health services are dealing with a mother who has postnatal depression, they should automatically also find out how the father is doing”, she says to Psykologtidsskriftet, a Norwegian journal of psychology.

It starts before birth

Another important finding, according to Fredriksen, is that the onset of depression often was before birth.

“This is knowledge that could be used to move the preventive work being done today to earlier phases in the pregnancy, as well as of course continuing with the follow up that happens in the time after birth”, she says to Psykologtidsskriftet.

For some of the women in Fredriksens study, it appeared as though the birth itself played a part in the onset of depression. But for the largest group, the birth was merely just another stress factor for women who were already vulnerable.

Fredriksen has not studied whether or not fathers get postnatal depression independently of how the mother is doing.

She also warns that depression may look different for some men, and that research may not be well enough equipped yet to discover this.

“For instance, we use questionnaires that ask if you cry a lot. But from research in other countries we know that this often results in low scores for men regarding depression, because crying isn’t necessarily one of their reactions”, she says to Kilden kjønnsforskning.no.

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