We Need to Talk About Dads, Depression, and Suicide
How you can help dads you know, and others who need it.
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A few years ago Mind, the mental health charity, approached Ogilvy, a global advertising agency, with a problem. They wanted to change the framing around mental health, remove stigmas that stubbornly remain, and help the millions affected by mental health problems to be more comfortable opening up about their silent struggles.
What a brief. For those of you who’ve been, or remain, in the ad industry, these are the projects that make it worthwhile—all that time spent shilling cleaning products, getting teens to nag their parents for new sneakers, convincing folks to buy a different phone, a different car, or download a different app than one they’re already happy with; generally fueling the capitalist machine and persuading people to buy more stuff they don’t need. And then, every so often, a brief like this lands on your desk.
Ogilvy delivered a compelling idea—to “be in your mate’s corner.” One in four men across the UK will be affected by a mental health problem at some point in their lives, a number that’s pretty much consistent worldwide. That figure makes it almost certain you’ll know someone who will one day—if not already—struggle with their mental health. So they went out there and told the general public—have your friend’s back. They made a nice advert, a website, t-shirts, and posters in cities up and down the country. So far, so good. But then, in one of those ideas that usually end up languishing on page 43 of the client presentation—sandwiched between a social media stunt or some futile attempt to start a meme—a smart media planner/copywriter (or maybe a magical combination of both) suggested a concept brutal in its simplicity, and laser-focused in its insight: a beer mat that asked: “Is there a mate missing around this table?”
If you work in adland you’ll know the feeling—the delighted envy, smiling through gritted teeth—of seeing a piece of work and slowly closing your eyes, followed by your fists, seething to yourself “I wish I made this.” Seeing this recontextualisation of the humble coaster? That’s how I felt. In a heartbeat, the invisible became recognised, the impression of a dotted outline finally discernable, an absence recorded. That friend—the one who always used to be out, that we haven’t seen in a while—has anyone talked to him lately?
The beermat suggested three simple steps: “Reach out, be yourself, do what you love together.” It’s difficult to judge the impact of a single piece of advertising, especially offline, and certainly when the call to action is more complicated than “install now” or “buy here.” So it’s downright impossible to measure the effectiveness of this gentle nudge, a reminder for men to look out for their friends. But I guarantee the impact wasn’t zero. Even if you didn’t see the beer mat in the pub, you probably saw it on Twitter, where the above tweet still stands, 4 years, 62.5k retweets, and 181.7k likes later.
When you’re all sat around a pub table, it’s easy to picture who isn’t there. But what happens when weekends spent in the pub become a thing of the past? When a change in lifestyle means you’re home more than ever? The first year after the birth of a child is when new parents are particularly at risk for first and recurrent episodes of mental illness. A recent paper found that 1 in 10 men will deal with an episode of paternal post-natal depression, with some research suggesting that number might be as high as 28%. First-time dads are most susceptible, and those with a partner experiencing depression have a 50% chance of following suit. I’ve seen those numbers first-hand. I’ve seen them in dads I know. I’ve seen them in my inbox. Like any evolved predator, paternal post-natal depression has its defences, a chameleon-like ability to disguise itself as bog-standard “new parent stress”: feeling constantly tired, not wanting to leave the house, having no time to do anything—take a shower, cook dinner, answer a phonecall—because everything is all just too much.
When undiagnosed, unacknowledged and untreated, mental health episodes can lead to grave outcomes. Depression is linked with more hostile and violent parenting, poorer physical health and well-being of children, and a higher risk of children developing chronic conditions, including depression and anxiety, as adults. For post-natal depression, the research is heavily tilted towards the mother’s experience, where research has shown incidents of self-harm are on the rise, and suicide rates for new mothers have tripled in the last decade. But when we layer on what we already know about male suicide—the leading cause of death for young men, a gender 4 times more likely to kill themselves than women, and with 82% of male suicides coming from the first known attempt—it becomes clear why fathers dealing with mental health problems are up to 47 times more likely to take their own life in the post-natal period. It’s a sickness that has been killing dads for decades. We’re only starting to become aware of it.
Frances Bean Cobain was 20 months old when her father Kurt took his own life. Michael Hutchence’s daughter Tiger Lily? 16 months old. Ian Curtis died leaving a daughter who had just turned one. Donny Hathaway, Chris Cornell, John Bonham—all fathers who took their own lives. The names, places and ages change. But the song remains the same.
I carried that beer mat with me through my depression, and out the other side.
I was already working remotely in 2019, after the birth of my son. I was a rare pre-pandemic work-from-homer. I’d fly away to run workshops regularly, but I was home the rest of the time, in a place where friends couldn’t see me, and couldn’t observe the signs: withdrawing from relationships, unable to bond with your baby, increasingly irritable, unsatisfied with the life adjustment, leaning too much on those crutches—the glass of wine, the odd smoke— that seem to be running beyond your control. Living like that is hard, but those symptoms mask a deeper, more troubling existence—the only thing more exhausting than depression was pretending to everyone that I was fine.
Through thousands of years of herd behaviour, and a society that enables women to be more empathetic than men, mothers have developed this sixth sense at looking out for each other. But we haven’t. We lack the language and skills to be able to talk about these things easily.
As men, generally speaking, we're terrible at talking about how we feel. Broad brushstrokes, but it's two-sided problem: those who need help don't ask for it, and those who could be helping don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand when their friends need them most—rushing to solve problems, rather than understand the causes behind them.
I wrote that essay before I wrote about my own battle with paternal post-natal depression. Re-reading it today, the subtext is clear—where were those who should have been checking in on me? But I can’t point the finger without admitting something to myself: I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I wanted to be left the fuck alone. I’m not here, this isn’t happening. If my phone started ringing, it would continue ringing, and it would ring out. Well, it wouldn’t ring, of course, it’s been on silent since 2016. What am I, some kind of monster?
When you search images about depression—I’m sure you do it all the time, come on, we’re all friends here—you’re guaranteed to see the same hackneyed depiction of a raincloud following someone around as they hold their head in their hands. My recollection of this time was less of a black cloud, but ping-ponging between two alternate states: the first where every action—a walk with the dog, a call with a friend, a quick nip to the shops—was akin to walking through sludge, pointlessly, with a 40kg weight on my back; and the other, a complete nothingness—numb to all emotion, numb to life, a vacuum of space where joy used to be; looking into your newborn child’s eyes and feeling nothing as he cracks out his first smile; “the emotional equivalent of watching paint dry.” It was horrible. For all of us.
It feels like a lifetime ago, like decades have passed in the three years since. It broke my heart, but my son opened it up, and built me back better, my cracks visible for all to see. Those months are an impenetrable fog, but the feeling can never be forgotten. Wearing that dark, heavy jacket, how it felt, rendering me unable to do even the most basic tasks. And when those negative patterns rear their head again, the proverbial black dog on my shoulder, I know what I need to do—reach out and ask for help, rather than waiting to be saved; continue the good habits I know will keep me on track—meditation, exercise, self-care, taking comfort in family and friends, and the odd check-in with my therapist, the woman who threw down a rope and enabled me to ascend from my nadir.
Looking back on this time isn’t easy, and writing essays on this topic is emotionally exhausting. I’m sure reading about it feels like that too. But I write this, and send it to you, because I know there are dads out there who will find solace in these words. A few months after that first essay I received an email from a friend, the first time he’d opened up about his own battle with paternal post-natal depression:
I’ve been meaning to write you for a while. What you’re doing here is bloody excellent. So many pieces have hit deep. I also suffered from depression after my son was born, even though I never admitted them to anyone, including myself. Convincing myself that I was only tired and everyone goes through it. All sorts of hostile feelings of resentment and jealousy and feeling tired and sick of it all. Trying to bury it and rise above it only meant it lasted that much longer. Thank you for writing about this.
I didn’t feel comfortable writing that headline. It isn’t there for shock value—it’s been written with a view to the future, anticipating a dad who one day might find his way here and stumble across a rope I’ve thrown down myself (Google algorithm, get to work.) I wrote the headline with great hesitation, knowing there will be more than one person who will receive this email and feel a searing pain in seeing those words in close proximity to one another.
It might have been a friend. An uncle. It might have been your own father. But far too many of us have grown up without men in our lives who should still be here. That’s why we need to look out for each other. And why I’ll keep writing about this.
Because I’ve been down there before, and I know the way out.
Just one link for this week
“Postnatal depression in dads: 10 things you should know” from the National Childbirth Trust A good primer on paternal post-natal depression: key statistics, what to look out for, and what to do next if you’re feeling some of these things.
A beer mat once told me …
Being a dad requires you to develop, or skill up on, attributes like empathy, patience, anger management, and communication. But it also demands something else: vigilance. Not just for your own child, ensuring they keep out of harm’s way. But also on dads around you, those that may be struggling.
If you’ve got a friend you haven’t heard from in a while, take this as a nudge to talk to them. If they’re a new dad, PPND presents itself in any number of ways. Here’s a list from that NCT link up above:
Fear, confusion, helplessness and uncertainty about the future
Withdrawal from family life, work and social situations
Frustration, irritability, cynicism and anger
Negative parenting behaviours
Alcohol and drug use
If you’ve got a friend exhibiting these behaviours, I’m going to give you a piece of advice you should normally avoid—do what the beer mat told you. Reach out, be yourself, do what you love together. One thing that’s been proven to help parents dealing with depression (and I can attest to the effects of myself) is baby-wearing. It provides constant contact with your child, a great excuse to get out of the house and much-needed exercise. Why not head out with your friend, and bring along the babies? I saw a set of four dads walking down the street wearing their children last week and they looked phenomenal.
Get out, walk it off, and move beyond the surface level of “how are you” (or as we say up in Manchester “hiya, y'alright?”2) Your friend will thank you for it.
Introducing TNF Therapy Fund
Since day one I’ve been thinking about the impact this newsletter might have on the lives of dads. I’ve spun in different directions. I thought of donating a portion of the proceeds to a dad-focused charity helping dads, but they’re tough to find—the main UK charity focused on paternal mental health raised £356 last year, with expenses of £599. And whilst there are many great charities helping those with mental health issues—Calm and Mind being two that continue to do great work—I wanted something specific to dads. I also mulled over turning this whole endeavour into a charity, until a friend helpfully reminded the level of admin involved in running one.
I want to do something baked into the DNA of the newsletter. To help other dads struggling after becoming parents, to help them open up, and to make them feel less alone. One of those ways is through writing. Another is community. And clearly, therapy has a role to play. I once thought of going to therapy as a sign of weakness, but it’s clear to me today that it’s a show of strength. But it’s a privilege that not everyone has access to. I was able to pay out of pocket for my own sessions. Others find financial support through national health schemes or employee health plans. But that still leaves a lot of dads without the option, some of whom find themselves included in the roughly 30 million uninsured folks in the US. I know there are many dads reading this who feel, or once felt, the same way I felt. Perhaps they got help. Maybe they’re still working through it. Let’s help them out.
This newsletter currently brings in *checks notes* $9,602 per year from 150-ish paid subscribers. After Substack take 10%, and Stripe 3%, that’s almost $700 a month. If we estimate an hour of therapy at $70 a pop, this means with one month’s revenue could cover the cost of 2 dads to have five sessions with a therapist.
So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to put whatever money comes in from the newsletter, this and every October, into the TNF Therapy Fund. If you’re a dad reading this and feel like you’d benefit from therapy, but it seems out of reach financially—get in touch. We can figure out the logistics of it all: whether you would prefer to use an online service like BetterHelp, Talkspace, or Sondermind; if you already have a therapist in mind, or if you need help finding one using a service like TherapyDen or through a personal recommendation.
Right now I can cover the cost of 2 dads. But together we could do more. And that’s where you come in. If you sign up for a paid subscription this month, I’ll put 100% of your donation into the fund. (Or at least, the 100% that remains once Substack and Stripe take their cut.) If this works, we’ll do it every October, an annual pledge drive, for as long as I write TNF. You’ll still get all the regular paid subscriber benefits: the extra essays, access to the community, the eBook, and the online (and soon-to-be irl) events. But you'll also get the warm feeling of knowing your money will be going to a good cause.
If you sign up monthly, your $6 will be added, and those already paying monthly have been grandfathered3 in. For those folks who sign up for an annual subscription, your entire $60 will go into the pot—this year, and every year this boat remains sailing. If you’re already a monthly subscriber who renews in a different month and would like your money to go into the fund…eeeesh that’s a complicated edge case. Get in touch, or send me a message in Geneva, and we can sort something out. If we end up with more money in the fund than dads who want to use it, we’ll do more work to find them.
If you’d like to donate directly, without subscribing (and without the Substack cut), you can also directly donate for one hour of therapy or cover the cost of 5 sessions for one dad. This month I’m also going to put 100% of the profits from the badges in the fund too. If you’ve already ordered one I’ll throw your money in. And if you’d like to buy a few badges for the dads in your life, and let them know what that money went towards, you can do that too.
If you’re affected by the issues above, and need to speak to someone now, you can call The Samaritans on 116 123 (UK), and The Lifeline on 988 (US).
It was World Mental Health Day on Monday, hence the subject. A couple of days late, as usual. I’m like an inverse Ja Rule: always there when you call, but not always on time. Slightly different vibe this week, but a conversation we need to have. How was it for you?
Branding by Selman Design. Survey by Sprig. Special thanks to Nic, Gareth, Jayme, Justin, Hana and of course Sejal for help making this all make sense over the last week. Surround yourself with smart, kind people and watch it rub off on you. An extra hunk of love to Tony Johnson, who should probably be getting an editorial by-line by this point. His illustration was originally for a different essay, but proved such an emotional gut punch that it inspired an entirely new one.
If you aren’t able to donate—I know it isn’t easy out there right now—please consider sharing this article with friends or whenever you spend time online. Thank you for reading. Let’s go help some dads.
Sidenote, or more accurately, footnote: That “Where’s My Jenny” essay holds up, imo. Especially as it was issue #2? If you’ve finished this and are still looking for something to read, go give it a go. You surely missed it the first time around. And brought a smile to my face to see some folks in the comments who are still around now. Shoutout to the TNF OGs.
“Fathered in” surely, here of all places?