Pioneering mental health programme for stressed dads

30 June 2005

By Michael Durham

A pioneering mental health programme for new fathers who could be at risk of a breakdown is to be launched at a maternity unit in Essex. Midwives and nurses will be trained to spot men, as well as women, with signs of stress and post-natal depression.

A telephone helpline, counselling, leaflets and posters will all be part of the service aimed especially at reaching young fathers, to start early next year.

Basildon Hospital already offers a helpline and counselling for mothers. The idea for a similar service for men came to Mary Alabaster, head of maternal mental health at South Essex Partnership Trust based at nearby Runwell Hospital.

Mary Alabaster said:  “Fathers psychological health is a neglected area. We do a lot for mothers, but not for dads. When I see women, I am often left wondering how their partners are coping.

“Pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby are stressful times for a man too. How does he feel, how does he cope, what’s going inside his head?  How does he cope with children, and what does he think about his partner now that she has a baby?

“Men by their very nature are not allowed to talk about their inner selves or express their feelings. Society expects them to be the provider and not to admit any emotional stress. The stress on some men must be enormous, but they can’t express it and they have to bottle it all up.

“The bottom line is – where do men get the support they need at this stressful time? Services are very fragmented and mostly directed at women and children, and are just not geared for men at all.  Even GPs surgeries usually open from nine to five.  What happens when men are at work?”

The initiative follows research that suggests a growing proportion of young men – especially young dads – could be suffering from psychological illness.  The government’s national suicide strategy document, published last September, revealed that suicide is the commonest cause of death among men under 35.

Statistics also suggest that more relationships break down in the early years of fatherhood than at any other time, perhaps as a result of the stress of parenthood. Around one in three new fathers attending Basildon maternity unit already have at least one child under five.

Mary Alabaster said: “The story of these young men is a tragic loss to society. Some men are simply taking their own lives.   In other cases the stress of new fatherhood may be driving them into relationships with other women, drink and drugs.”

A £3,500 grant from the Queen’s Nursing Institute will allow Basildon to draw up a pilot scheme to give men, as well as women, psychological support.  Health workers will be trained to score fathers as well as mothers for “vulnerability” before and after childbirth.

Fathers will be asked questions about how they are coping at pre and post natal interviews. Staff do not expect many to give a clear answer. “We know that men aren’t allowed to express or talk about personal things. Instead we hope to plant a seed, so they know where to come for help later if they need to,” Ms Alabaster said.

Experienced fathers are being recruited to learn counselling skills, and will eventually provide a telephone helpline in association with the mental health charity MIND.   Leaflets and posters publicising the helpline are being prepared for display in pubs, clubs and shops.

Under the slogan “FM- Fathers Matter.  Listen!” the initiative will be promoted in the community, as well as in the maternity unit, clinics and GP surgeries. The unit is now looking for a sponsor to ensure the helpline will continue after next year.

Mary Alabaster 01268 366018,