- One in 20 Aussie dads experience postnatal depression
- Male sufferers tend to self-medicate with drink, drugs and work
- Author Ryan Heffernan shares his experience in new book
While the mother of his young son was caring for their baby at home, Ryan Heffernan was staggering about in a drunken, drug-filled stupor in seedy Sydney’s Kings Cross.
However, apparently, Mr Heffernan, 41, was displaying the typical signs of a father suffering from postnatal depression, also known as paternal depression.
One in 20 fathers in Australia experience postnatal depression in the first year of their child’s life, according to Lisa Knott from the Post and Ante Natal Depression Association.
She says that the public and even some medical practitioners did not fully understand the issue.
Sufferers are often told to “man up’ and “get on with it”, when what they really need is professional help, she says.
While, the focus is generally on the mum’s health, both mentally and physically, after a child is born, the dad’s health is rarely considered.
Typically, dads with postnatal depression, tend to spend longer at work to avoid being at home, and use alcohol and drugs to make themselves feel better.
“We have unrealistic expectations of fatherhood and motherhood,” Knott says.
“We expect to excel in every field.”
Heffernan, who lives in Manly, says he certainly felt that way.
“I was totally unprepared for fatherhood and the stress of being a modern day dad,” he explains.
“Demands on fathers are greater than ever. They are still expected to be the breadwinner, work long hours and then be a super plugged-in dad at home.”
Throughout this time, there were periods when Mr Heffernan was present and supportive, particularly in the early weeks when he was off work.
“I was there for my partner and baby. I would get up in the night, help get him to sleep, do the washing, and help with all that stuff. I wanted to,” he says.
But, when he returned to work, where he was a Channel 7 TV producer and investigative journalist, his anxiety increased and he then became more absent from his parenting role.
“I felt like those two worlds just didn’t fit together,” he says. “It was a work hard, play hard culture and then I had this baby and partner at home.”
Heffernan says that he felt he was failing at all of his roles, as journalist and as a partner and father.
By now he was feeling very anxious, describing the feeling as having “butterflies with razor blades for wings”.
He says both he and his former partner Heather Blinkhorne thought there was something seriously wrong, but put it down to him “drinking too much”.
As their relationship deteriorated, his behaviour spiralled out of control and eventually, when Louis was around the age of one, they split.
For the first few weeks after the breakup he spent all his time in King’s Cross.
“I would stay there for days, in a haze and making fast friends with like-minded women and complete strangers generally,” he says in his new book Superdad Speedbible, which is billed as a “toolbox for men with young kids”.
“Those first few weeks, while my son was staying with his mum, I was particularly out of control. I don’t know if I was sober for any of it.”
The couple agreed on sharing childcare 50/50, with Louis spending one week with his mum and the next with his dad.
Coping as a single parent, trying to find childcare every other week, while working full-time, was incredibly stressful.
“At 5.30am I would be making phone calls for work, trying to feed my kid and myself, get us both dressed, racing him to childcare, where I would leave him crying and then run for the bus,” Heffernan says.
“At the end of the day it was a rush to pick him up at 6pm, and then I’d continue to be on the phone for work.”
He says eventually it felt like all the life had been sucked out of him and that he was never going to get it back.
Heffernan realised he needed help. He went to his GP who immediately diagnosed him with depression. At this point Louis was 18 months old.
Paternal depression can only be diagnosed within the first year of becoming a father, so he was diagnosed with depression. However, Heffernan believes something was amiss from as early as a few months after the birth.
“Men don’t seek help until the dying moments. By that time they have hit the wall, so recovery time takes much longer,” he says. “After four to five weeks on antidepressants it was like an epiphany. I felt awesome.”
Heffernan decided to quit his job not long after his diagnosis and sought work in other fields to pay the bills, allowing him to be the dad he wanted to be to his son. He also got fit and healthy. He is practically a teetotaller, no longer takes recreational drugs, eats well and exercises.
After his transformation, Heffernan decided he would help other dads and started a blog superdadspeedbible.com, which led to a book of the same name.
He says the aim is to give dads a practical guide on how to look after young kids and also themselves, whether they have a partner or are a single parent.
“I could have done with this guide, particularly after becoming a single parent. I felt all the advice and support was geared to mums,” Heffernan says.
Louis is now six and the pair enjoy their time together. Heffernan describes himself as a put-your-kid-on-your-shoulders-and-show-him-the-world type of dad and feels like the two of them are moving forwards together, rather than living separate lives.
“Even though at times it’s been extremely difficult, being Louis’ dad has been the most magical period of my life,” he says.
“He has enriched my life more than I ever thought possible.
“Kids are powerful things. They are capable of creating a change in you.”
A new website called How Is Dad Going? is useful for new dads
Mr Heffernan’s book is available is most bookshops at $24.99 or from his website superdadspeedbible.com
Daddy depression and nspd:
- Affects people from all walks of life and has always existed – postnatal depression may have been called a “nervous breakdown” 50 years ago.
- Appears with mild, moderate, or severe symptoms – it can begin during pregnancy, suddenly after birth or gradually in the weeks or months following delivery
- More than 15 per cent of mums and 5 per cent of dads develop depression in the postnatal period and after birth
- If mum suffers postnatal depression, dads are more susceptible
- Many sufferers say anxiety is their most obvious symptom and reject the term postnatal depression as they don’t identify with feeling depressed
- The PANDA National Perinatal Depression Helpline is 1300 726 306, where there are male as well as female counsellors.
This article first appeared on The Daily Telegraph on 6 July, 2014.