"Sadly, no one was talking about father's mental health in 2011, so I decided that I wanted to make sure that the voices of dads are heard..."
Parental Mental Health: Mark's Story
Warning, this post contains details of suicidal thoughts, anxiety, PTSD, and depression that some might find upsetting.
Mark Williams BCAh FRSA is a keynote speaker, author, and international mental health campaigner who lives in the UK, and this is his story in his own words.
"In 2004, I suffered my first ever panic attack at thirty years of age and I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me. It was the day my son was born. My wife Michelle was taken to the theatre for an emergency C-section, and I honestly thought she was going to die. I was terrified.
During this period, I experienced nightmares about Michelle and Ethan dying in the theatre. I would wake up thinking it was real. Sadly, Michelle went on to develop severe postnatal depression and PTSD – an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening, or distressing events, and my world changed forever.
I was never asked about my mental health after the birth of my son like so many other fathers today, and I'd never known anyone with the illness and was so uneducated about mental health that I used to wonder: 'How can people be depressed?'.
Within weeks of Michelle’s diagnosis, I had to give up my job to care for her and Ethan. She was so unwell and was in crisis. There were no specialist perinatal mental health services back then.
Back then people used to say: 'How can mothers be depressed; they've just had a new baby?!' so only close family members knew what was going on in our lives due to the stigma and lack of education.
I had loved the social side of my job and once that was gone, I was totally isolated.
Sometimes I wouldn’t get out the front door for days. Within months, my personality changed, and I was drinking in an attempt to cope.
I became angry. It got to the point where, if I did manage to get out with friends, I wanted to fight the doorman. I had this strange need to get hurt to try and stop what I was feeling and the thoughts that were going through my head. It was another way of self-harming.
I began to have uncontrollable suicidal thoughts but never acted on them. At the time, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone. I was raised in a working-class community where my father and grandfather were coal miners.
Growing up, we looked up to ‘hard men’ who didn’t show their emotions and now I was feeling emotional – and I was feeling weak. I kept telling myself I just had to ‘man up’ and everything would be okay.
After five years of suffering in silence since my son was born, losing my grandfather and my mother getting diagnosed with cancer just weeks apart, my mental health got worse. My mum is fine now, but I had not dealt with things in previous years, and it all became overwhelming.
One day, whilst sitting in my car before walking into work, I had a complete breakdown, or a breakthrough as I tend to call it now. I literally couldn't get out of the car. I was shaking, crying and suicidal thoughts were racing through my mind.
After going through community mental health teams, I was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and depression.
This was the start of my journey to campaign.
I know now, that the quicker the help, the quicker the recovery and it's so important to communicate with your partner.
Eight weeks into my recovery in 2010 I spoke to another father and decided I wanted to turn my negative experience into a positive.
Fatherhood is the best journey I've ever been on, and my son is more educated at his age than I was at thirty. We have done so much together and now that he's 18 we go to watch football, music events and so much more. I still make mistakes as a father as no one is perfect, but we talk about it.
Being open and honest about my mental health has given Ethan more confidence to say if he's not feeling so good.
We all have a part to pay, and early prevention of perinatal mental health conditions starts during pregnancy. So, please talk.
Becoming a father is an extremely important life event for a man.
With one in ten dads suffering postnatal depression and up to fifty per cent suffering depression looking after their partners, we need to support everyone.
Fathers can experience new emotions, feelings, and changes initiated by the transition into parenthood. Some recent evidence shows that around 22% of new fathers experience anxiety and depression, and yet there is still little understanding in society about this, let alone appropriate support.
Like new mums, dads also experience hormonal changes. Their testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, and oxytocin levels lower after their baby is born and it’s important to look out for any changes in a new fathers personality. Some fathers may feel lonely and isolated from the process of being a new parent.
Dads need to know that it is quite common not to bond straight away. Being home looking after Michelle helped as I was able to do skin-to-skin, baby massage and play.These interactions boost dopamine and endorphins which help both dad's and baby's brain.
The price of not getting help can be high. Men in Western countries are four times as likely to kill themselves as women are (not, of course, because of PND alone).
Engage with services – it's okay not to be ok!
Sadly, no one was talking about father's mental health in 2011, so I decided that I wanted to make sure that the voices of dads are heard.
Today I'm a keynote speaker and author with many articles published in journals with my mentor Dr Jane Hanley.
My campaign has always been about supporting the mental health of all parents.
If you’re struggling, please contact your doctor and seek professional support from perinatal mental health services. There are also some amazing support groups for men out there today that were not around when I was a new father."
If this content reminds you of your own experiences or makes you think of someone you know and you feel concerned or uncomfortable, please head to the PSI website for information about perinatal mental health resources that may be able to help.