Helping new and expecting dads cope with mental health issues

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When looking back over his life, Mark* realizes that growing up he handled certain situations differently than the other kids in his elementary school. He remembers in Grade seven responding to setbacks and failures with much more passion than others, beating himself up and refusing to just move on like a kid should.

“I would get depressed when I didn’t achieve a look, a grade or an idea,” recalls Mark. “I would stay up late at night thinking of how I could improve the situation.”

As he got older, he would turn to alcohol when dealing with similar situations or when feeling anxious or depressed. A year ago, Mark found out he was going to be a father. It came as a shock – and it also served as a wakeup call.

“With the little one coming along I told myself, ‘this is something I can’t just ignore or try to deal with on my own,’” he says. So Mark sought help and was referred to St. Joseph’s Health Centre’s Fathers’ Mental Health Service.

Launched early summer 2014, the Fathers’ Mental Health Service gives expectant or new fathers a safe space where they can talk openly about their issues or concerns. Mental illness, in any form or degree, is a risk for both women and men. Programs like this are finding ways to better engage men – particularly fathers – and offer a service that is exclusive to them and welcoming to even the most reluctant dads who might not feel comfortable addressing this type of care.

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“The opportunity to identify and target men who are fathers with mental disorders and manage those mental disorders increases the likelihood that we have a positive influence on the home environment,” says Dr. Jose Silveira, Chief of Psychiatry at St. Joe’s. “It’s about improving the emotional, psychological and physical environment for children.”

It’s estimated that one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness serious enough to warrant treatment in their lifetime. Mental illness can manifest itself in many different ways and presents differently in men and women.

“In terms of gender differences between how people cope with stress, women are more likely to identify changes in their thoughts and feelings such as increased anxiety or depressed mood,” explains Dr. Andrew Howlett, a child and family psychiatrist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre and one of the founders of the Fathers’ Mental Health Network. “With men on the other hand, we are more likely to see changes in their behavior such as alcohol and substance use and outward expressions of anger. Changes in thoughts and feelings are there, they may just be harder to find.”

He said men may also experience periods of withdrawal or avoidance where they distance themselves from social experiences because of stress, anxiety or depression. “Generally people believe men experience more stigma related to mental health than women do,” says Dr. Howlett. “Part of it is gender stereotypes and roles – the masculine role of ‘I can get through this, I don’t need help, don’t cry’ and ‘don’t talk about my feelings.’”

He said these types of attitudes and beliefs inhibit men from approaching family and friends and letting them know they’re going through a difficult time. He said there’s also a chance that men are just not aware that something is wrong.

Dr. Howlett said he hopes that by having more conversations about men’s mental health and by creating innovative ways to engage and provide services to men that the burden of mental health on men and families will be reduced.

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Mark believes there is a lack of resources available to his generation. “[With this service] there might be more men who come forward and say ‘You know what? Something’s not right’ or ‘I want to get help to try to figure out what’s bothering me.’”

He’s still using the Fathers’ Mental Health Service because it’s having a positive influence on his life and he’s confident in the message he’s sending to his son.

“I’m becoming more patient thanks to [Dr. Howlett],” Mark says. “He’s making me see some things not as a sprint but as a marathon – you can’t force something to happen, you have to allow some things to take time.”

For more information on St. Joe’s Fathers’ Mental Health Network, you can visit www.fathersmentalhealth.com.

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