Time to stop keeping mum about dads and depression
It is easy to forget that many men with mental illness are fathers, too.
Social worker John Clark only came to recognise the effect depression was having on his parenting 12 months into his illness.
“I avoided the kids by getting up after they’d left, and getting home late at night. I tried to stay in bed on weekends. They were too much for me; too many words, too boisterous, too active, too demanding,” he said recently.
Clark is not alone. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly one in five men will experience a mental health problem in the next year. Like Clark, many of these men will have children.
Why then do we rarely hear of the effect that mental illness has on fatherhood? Or that fatherhood has on mental health?
It is common in our society to make a connection between motherhood and mental health. This is partly due to increased awareness and understanding of antenatal and postnatal depression. There is no doubt that for some women the hormonal rollercoaster of pregnancy and childbirth dips into clinical territory.
But hormones offer only part of an explanation. We feel comfortable mentioning motherhood and mental illness in the same breath because we are used to thinking of women’s identity as relational in nature. We take it for granted that a women’s sense of self will be entwined with the lives of her children and family.
But what about fathers?
In recent years there has been much talk of the “new father”. He gets up in the night. He nurtures. He wants to split household tasks 50/50. He helps us feel good about how far we have come since the bad old days of the emotionally absent breadwinner. But scratch the surface and our support for him starts looking limited indeed.
Just as there are many who criticise the career-driven mother, so too there are those who deride the father whose sense of identity is closely tied to his family. Take a look at popular culture’s snide depictions of stay-at-home dads. The subtext is clear: a real man builds his identity with the bricks and mortar of status and independence.
Or bring to mind the men our society valorizes - the sportsmen, the business leaders, the celebrities. Almost to the last, they embody independence, success and worldliness. Seldom do we celebrate men for their emotional intelligence or for sacrifices they make.
It is no wonder, then, that despite the “new father” rhetoric, many still think of a man with a mental illness as an island unto himself - an individual, rather than part of a family system. It is no wonder we often struggle to make the connection between a man’s mental health and the wellbeing of his children.
Here is a fact: it is very difficult to find a counseling service or support group in Australia that specifically focuses on father’s mental health (although they do exist for mothers).
Here is another fact: many health professionals do not routinely ask men as simple a question as “How is your mental illness affecting your kids?” Indeed, a recent survey by SANE found that 64 per cent of parents with a mental illness reported that mental health professionals had not adequately considered the needs of their family when developing a treatment plan.
Fortunately, there are some early signs that times are changing. The support organisation Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) has recently produced a website aimed at fathers. Universities and research organisations, including the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Parenting Research Centre, are conducting large-scale studies on father’s mental health, and investigating how service providers could better meet their needs.
And perhaps the most promising sign of all is that men like Clark are going out and talking to other fathers about their experiences. Two years on from his battle with depression, Clark works for Anglicare running an outreach and education service with families for whom mental illness is a concern.
“Recovery meant decoupling my identity from my performance and has changed me immensely”, he says. “Being a father and largely recovered from my illness; I see this as an advantage now, rather than a disadvantage. I’m teaching my kids the skills that I’ve learned being in recovery. We do things slower and more mindfully. We’re less busy and less ambitious. I teach them about feelings and what to do with them”.
There is much work to be done in bridging the conceptual gap our society has created between mental health and fatherhood. We need to make it easier for men to reflect upon and talk about their mental illness and how it influences them as fathers, so that more may develop the care and insight that Clark displays.
This need not be difficult - we can start with health professionals. As academic Richard Fletcher and his colleagues suggested in a recent article, “in primary clinical settings, men aged 25-54 years who are known to have a mental illness should be routinely asked about their fathering”.
On the cultural front, Channel Nine’s House Husbands might just be a baby-step towards normalising men who are closely connected to their families. Let’s hope it continues to do more than cash in on the cliché of the incompetent father. Better yet, let’s hope one of the husbands struggles with a mental illness.
Ultimately though, we need to ensure that our attitudes, our health and service systems, and our social policies all reflect the simple fact that many men struggling with mental health problems are fathers, too.
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