Testosterone levels provide surprising insight, a new study says
Dads get sad, too.
About one in 10 fathers get prenatal or postpartum depression, research shows. And a new study may point to a key risk factor: testosterone levels. Indeed, fathers with lower T levels nine months after birth were more likely to report depressive symptoms, according to a new study. (“It may be that low T is linked with feeling lethargic or less motivated,” a co-author suggested.)
The research, published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, analyzed data from 149 couples. Fathers supplied testosterone samples when their kids were roughly nine months old, and both moms and dads answered a postnatal depression questionnaire at two, nine and 15 months postpartum.
Surprisingly, women whose partners had lower testosterone levels after childbirth were actually less likely to be depressed at the nine- and 15-month marks after birth. “It may be that lower-testosterone men are just better partners,” lead author Darby Saxbe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California’s Dornsife College, told Moneyish. Relationships in which men had higher testosterone, meanwhile, were linked to greater paternal stress and higher levels of partners’ emotional abuse and (rare) physical aggression reported by mothers.
Whatever the reasons for male postpartum depression, the feelings are very real for fathers like Chris Illuminati, a 40-year-old writer from Lawrenceville, N.J., who found himself apathetic, lethargic and unhappy after Evan, now seven, arrived in March of 2010. “I lost interest in everything that I usually liked doing; I kind of sometimes lost interest in him,” he told Moneyish. “I obviously didn’t want to do work; I didn’t want to accomplish anything.”
His wife, of course, was struggling with the same sleep deprivation and uncertainties of new parenthood. But Illuminati realized early on his symptoms were “more than a bad mood” during an OB-GYN visit, where he found himself mentally checking off symptoms on a PPD form given to his wife. “I was like, ‘I have that, I have that, I have this, I do that,’” he said. “That’s what made me kind of realize, ‘Oh, maybe this isn’t just a male-female thing; this is just a human thing.’ Except we didn’t have the hard part, the baby (delivery) part.”
Illuminati, who says he’s already prone to depression, thinks the major life change of having his first child exacerbated the symptoms — as did flying solo at the conclusion of his wife’s three-month maternity leave, when they decided he would freelance full-time from home rather than sending their son to daycare.
Childcare costs are nothing to sneeze at: The average annual cost of full-time center-based infant care in the U.S., according to the group Child Care Aware, ranges from about $5,000 (Mississippi) to just over $17,000 (Massachusetts). In Illuminati’s home state of Jersey, it totals more than $11,500.
The clouds began lifting after seven or eight months — a product of Evan growing more active and Illuminati “getting the hang of fatherhood a little more.” Ironically, he added, his son is now “one of the few things that actually brings me happiness.” “Now when I am in slight bouts of depression, picking him up from school or taking him to the comic book store or playing Legos … that kind of lifts me out of the ‘bleh,’” he said. (He and his wife also have a daughter, Lila, now four.)
Illuminati, who runs the parenting blog A Message with a Bottle, didn’t think to get his hormone levels checked back then — but said he’s glad paternal PPD is getting more attention now. “When I talked about it seven years ago, people were like, ‘What? You don’t have that, because you didn’t have the kid,’” he said. “No, morons — you don’t have to have the baby; we just don’t have a term for it.”
The first course of action for dads with PPD shouldn’t be hormonal treatment, Saxbe said, and it may not immediately warrant antidepressants — as “some feelings of depression are normal while you’re going through a huge life transition like having a new baby.” Practice basic self-care like trying to get enough sleep, exercising and reaching out for social support. Fathers might also be proactive in establishing a support network with other new parents to ward off feelings of isolation.
“If it seems like fathers are feeling hopeless, or the sad mood isn’t lifting, or they’re not enjoying the things that they usually do … then it might be time to talk to someone, and there are talk therapies that work (like cognitive-behavioral therapy),” Saxbe said.
On a policy level, she added, the U.S. has a long way to go in supporting new parents. (The average number of weeks of paid paternity leave among large companies, optimistically, spiked from four in 2015 to 11 in 2017, according to a recent report from the site Fatherly.)
“We can think about the risk of depression and mood disorders in new parents, and recognize that maternity and paternity leaves aren’t just a luxury,” she said. “They might be really important for mental health — and ultimately that’ll affect the health and well-being of children.”
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