Swenson, Shah: The mental health of new dads needs attention, too

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This Father’s Day, we must confront a national reality – we are failing new fathers.

Though there has been increasing awareness of the mental health challenges faced by postpartum mothers, too often fathers are left behind. Approximately 1 in 3 fathers are at-risk for postpartum depression, and the risk is closer to 1 in 2 in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where we work. Mental health symptoms are so common that some NICUs, including ours locally, have begun to systematically include fathers in routine mental health screening when their babies have prolonged hospitalizations. Unfortunately, significant gaps in screening fathers beyond the hospital and health coverage means their symptoms often go untreated.

Mentally healthy fathers improve father-baby interactions, infant development, and the emotional-behavioral health of younger children. As pediatricians who specialize in the care of critically ill newborns, we see firsthand the difficulty dads confront in balancing care for their babies and partners, often with little time off work. When fathers experience postpartum depression, the risk their partners will experience symptoms increases. We must remember that support for paternal mental health benefits moms, too.

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for screening all parents whose infants require care in the NICU for postpartum depression, significant barriers exist. Pediatricians are not paid to coordinate mental health referrals for the large number of eligible parents they encounter. Battling the stigma of mental health issues, particularly for fathers, also takes a great deal of time that is uncompensated. Lack of routine screening for fathers after their babies go home from the hospital creates missed opportunities to normalize, educate, and connect fathers to treatment, leaving them and their young families to fend for themselves in a system where mental health care is increasingly hard to access.

Options are limited for fathers seeking mental health care, many of whom do not have insurance or primary-care physicians. While most states, including Minnesota, have extended Medicaid coverage to mothers for a year, no such provision exists for fathers. Extending to dads the same duration of Medicaid coverage after the birth of their newborns would be one large step state governments could make in caring for new fathers.

This Father’s Day, we should guarantee every dad access to mental health screening and the ability to receive treatment in their baby’s first year. The father’s health, baby’s health, and their family’s health will be better for it.

Dr. Sarah Swenson MD, DPhil, FAAP, is a Rhodes Scholar and neonatal-perinatal medicine fellow in Minnesota. Dr. Shetal Shah MD, FAAP, is head of the national Pediatric Policy Council. Both are members of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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