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What fatherhood has taught me about mental health

Ahead of Father’s Day we spoke to André Tomlin, a mental health researcher, founder of the Mental Elf website and father of Ava, Luca & Edie Rae. He shared with us his own experiences of depression as a father, and his hopes for what mental health research could achieve for his children.

What do you believe are the mental health challenges facing dads today?

I’m nearly 50 now and have seen such huge changes in my lifetime regarding what it is to be a man and a dad living in the UK. These changes are mostly positive. In 2018, men can be authentic and open in ways that were socially unacceptable when I was young, but I do think we still have a long way to go when it comes to mental illness.

I have had anxiety since childhood, but my depression started shortly after becoming a father, when the stress of everyday life and pressure of becoming a sole-breadwinner became too much for me. It took me a long time to recognise and accept this depressive illness and so I didn’t seek help until I was in crisis. For me, depression manifested itself as low mood and self-loathing, but also in externalising behaviours (aggression and anger). Of course, as a new parent, I didn’t prioritise my own health and had almost no time for myself.

What has fatherhood taught you about mental health and mental health research?

Let’s start with a cliché: becoming a parent is an incredible experience. It changes so much about our lives and gives us a new perspective on just about everything. I became a dad quite late in life. My wife and I tried to have a family for many years before our three children came along in quick succession, so in many ways we were very well prepared, but in others it was quite a shock!

My first lesson was that our mental health and wellbeing starts well before birth. As humans we are so vulnerable and so dependent on our family from the word go, and our genes and early life have a massive impact on our psychological development. I knew this before becoming a father, but having my own kids made this feel so real.

In terms of research, I’m constantly wondering if we are actually asking the right questions for our children and young people. Thankfully projects like the McPin Foundation’s Right People, Right Questions are working on that.

What changes would you like to see in how mental health in new fathers is dealt with?

There is so much more that we can do to support new fathers. Perinatal mental illness (in my case postnatal depression) needs to be recognised as a thing that affects new dads!

In my experience, healthcare professionals are pretty good at asking Mums about their mental health during the perinatal period, but they need to include Dads in their thinking too. As Mark Williams has said so convincingly, they need to ask #HowAreYouDad?

There is a real lack of support for new Dads going through mental health difficulties. New mums (especially those living in cities) are well supported by baby groups, play cafés and social media. Of course, this doesn’t help everyone, but it’s a start. New dads often need something different from Mums and these support networks and appropriate emotional support don’t exist. It feels to me like we’ve made lots of progress establishing men and dads in authentic social and family roles, but the support networks are still playing catch-up.

What challenges and opportunities do you think will face your children’s generation?

That’s a big question! Saving the planet seems like the obvious place to start. Looking at the current crop of world leaders it feels like some urgent evolution is needed. I have mixed feelings about the future. On the one hand we seem destined to destroy our environment and our species and the rise of inequality, violence and hate is always close by. On the other hand, life is beautiful and full of joy, and young people have such collective strength and promise.

I guess in terms of mental health we have much less stigma than we did even 10 years ago. That’s got to be a good thing and something that the new generation can build on.

What do you hope mental health research will have achieved by the time your children have grown up?

I don’t see any major pharmacological breakthroughs happening any time soon, but I think the next 20 years could see much better targeted and personalised treatments coming from the genetic research that is now beginning to show promise.

Digital technology will play a big part, as blended interventions alongside existing medication and psychosocial approaches. There’s lots of ways that augmented reality, virtual reality and wearable tech can improve self-management and treatment for a range of mental illnesses.

I’m excited by the ways we’re seeking to break away from the established diagnostic frameworks and approach mental health and mental illness in a more transdiagnostic way. This must be a real focus over the next decade.

Clearly we need to actually deliver on parity of esteem; reduce inequalities and focus on the people who really need help in our country. I’d like to see less fluffy research on symptoms and more targeted work that helps people who urgently need it; those living in poverty, in the criminal justice system, without a home, with addiction problems, with severe and enduring mental illness. That research is not sexy, but it is absolutely essential.

Finally, what tips would you give to other fathers for looking after their mental health?

Fatherhood is stressful, exhausting and full of positive and negative emotions. You need to focus on your children but also make time for yourself and for your relationships with your partner, family and friends. For me, these relationships were the first thing to go. I shut down, stopped communicating, worked harder at my job and allowed my depression to cloud everything.

Different things help different people, but what worked for me was a combination of admitting that I needed to be rescued, letting people support me and starting to help myself, exercise, antidepressants, music, counselling, dogs and family (although maybe not in that order).

About a month after I started taking antidepressants, the cloud started to lift. I had been shut off from my children for many months and that hurt them and me. I remember feeling that things were changing one Sunday morning after breakfast and so we danced around the kitchen together to some very bouncy music. We laughed and connected properly for the first time in a long time. I felt like their Daddy again.

You can read more from Andre on the Mental Elf website.

Last updated: 22 June 2018

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