Ottawa Citizen

BIRTH TRAUMA

PTSD can af­fect dads, too

- GIULIA RHODES Health · Anxiety · Mental Health · Women's Health · Medicine · Society · Bullying · Depression · Health Conditions · United Kingdom · PTSD · National Childbirth Trust

Two months after the birth of his twins, Ben Or­rah was driv­ing to work when he found him­self sob­bing un­con­trol­lably. He and his wife, Paula, were thrilled to have be­come par­ents, and their ba­bies, Polly and Lo­gan — born two months early — were home and do­ing well after six weeks in spe­cial care.

“I should have been so happy,” he says. In ad­di­tion to con­tin­u­ing bouts of un­ex­pected tear­ful­ness, Or­rah, a bio­med­i­cal sci­en­tist, be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence fright­en­ing night­mares and vivid flash­backs to mo­ments in the spe­cial care unit.

“They were so real. I could be at work, look­ing down my mi­cro­scope and sud­denly I was back there. My heart was rac­ing,” he says. He now knows he was ill, with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD), se­vere de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, trig­gered by the dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances of the twins’ early weeks.

Aware­ness of peri­na­tal men­tal health prob­lems — in­clud­ing PTSD, de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety — and of the ways they can af­fect both par­ents, is grow­ing.

In the U.K. Na­tional Child­birth Trust (NCT), re­search found about one in three new fathers ad­mit­ted con­cern about their men­tal health, with one in 10 re­ceiv­ing a di­ag­no­sis. (The equiv­a­lent fig­ure for mothers is one in five.) The num­ber of fathers af­fected by PTSD is not yet known and it is an area of grow­ing re­search in­ter­est.

“This is a par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble time for men and their men­tal health,” says Sarah McMullen, head of knowl­edge at the NCT. “And we need to know more about PTSD gen­er­ally. We know it is hap­pen­ing in men, too.”

Changes in re­la­tion­ships, life­style, fi­nan­cial wor­ries and the pres­sure of feel­ing un­able to sup­port a part­ner — a kind of provider/ pro­tec­tor anx­i­ety — are all fac­tors. “The ex­pe­ri­ence of wit­ness­ing a trau­matic birth or ill­ness in mother or baby can be key,” McMullen adds. Men are also not only less ex­posed to health-care ser­vices that might iden­tify prob­lems, she adds, but also of­ten more re­luc­tant to ask for help.

For many men, agrees Or­rah — “con­vinced that, as fathers, they have to be strong, al­ways able to cope” — this is very dif­fi­cult.

“We need to be hon­est about our feel­ings,” he con­tin­ues. “I have now dis­cov­ered many other dads who have strug­gled after the birth of chil­dren, even when on the out­side ev­ery­thing has seemed fine.

“I saw my­self as a fail­ure and I wrongly as­sumed ev­ery­one else would as well,” he says of the si­lence that re­sulted in a dam­ag­ing spi­ral of self-re­proach and dis­tress.

He felt not only that his feel­ings were un­jus­ti­fi­able — “other peo­ple had it much worse” — but also that to share them with his wife would be self­ish.

“I didn’t want to bur­den her,” he says. “She had so much to do al­ready, look­ing after two pre­ma­ture ba­bies. I didn’t want to be a re­spon­si­bil­ity for her or to dis­tract at­ten­tion from the ba­bies, and I thought that if I was feel­ing so ter­ri­ble it might be worse for her. I was sup­posed to pro­tect her.”

In ad­di­tion to anx­i­ety over Polly and Lo­gan’s un­cer­tain prog­noses, Or­rah found the sit­u­a­tion of other fam­i­lies on the unit ex­tremely up­set­ting. “We were al­ways hear­ing about ba­bies that had died,” he says. One in­ci­dent — in which the baby in the in­cu­ba­tor next to Polly’s heart stopped — af­fected him so deeply that it be­came the fo­cus of dis­tress­ing flash­backs.

“I kept re­liv­ing it again and again,” he says. “It was ab­so­lutely aw­ful. I could see the ex­pres­sion on the par­ents’ faces. Ev­ery­thing.”

Al­though Or­rah was in­creas­ingly aware that his ex­pe­ri­ences were not typ­i­cal, he tried to carry on as nor­mal.

“The rou­tine was ex­haust­ing. We were up early to drive to the hos­pi­tal so I could spend time with them be­fore work,” he says. “There was no time to take stock of how we felt. I was try­ing to be pro­fes­sional at work and I was wor­ried about Paula and how she was cop­ing. I just swal­lowed all my feel­ings.”

While the twins were in hos­pi­tal, Or­rah be­gan to worry about how his wife was cop­ing, and then with the stresses of car­ing for them at home. “I had con­cerns about her de­vel­op­ing de­pres­sion — be­cause of how I felt, re­ally — but she was fine. When we got the twins home, she was ac­tu­ally the hap­pi­est I had ever seen her,” he says.

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously ex­pe­ri­enced bouts of mild de­pres­sion, Or­rah re­searched his symp­toms on­line. “I knew I wasn’t cop­ing and I knew it was 10 times worse than any­thing I had felt be­fore,” he says.

He came across in­for­ma­tion about PTSD after birth. “It de­scribed how I felt ex­actly but ev­ery sin­gle thing was about mothers. There was noth­ing about fathers, and that made me feel even worse,” he says.

When, a few weeks later, his wife found Or­rah cry­ing by Polly’s cot, the re­lief at telling her how he felt was huge. “I just came out with it all. It changed ev­ery­thing,” he says.

Or­rah re­ceived counsellin­g — which fo­cused a lot on his sense of guilt and lack of self-com­pas­sion — and learned to use mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion tech­niques.

He doesn’t know, he ad­mits, what might have hap­pened if he hadn’t sought help. “After the first ther­apy ses­sion, I was hav­ing thoughts about harm­ing my­self. That was ter­ri­fy­ing. Luck­ily, I wasn’t yet sick enough to go fur­ther.”

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 ?? PHO­TOS: GETTY IM­AGES/ISTOCKPHOT­O ?? In­creas­ingly, men­tal health spe­cial­ists ac­knowl­edge the some­times-trau­matic af­ter­math of the birth of a baby on fathers.
PHO­TOS: GETTY IM­AGES/ISTOCKPHOT­O In­creas­ingly, men­tal health spe­cial­ists ac­knowl­edge the some­times-trau­matic af­ter­math of the birth of a baby on fathers.
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