International Fathers’ Mental Health Day takes place just after Father’s Day and offers an invaluable opportunity to shine a spotlight on the profound emotional difficulties some fathers can face and to highlight the importance of asking dads how they are. Paternal wellbeing is demonstrably significant for mothers, children, families and societies, but substantial roadblocks exist to men communicating about mental health and accessing support. There is now a growing movement (see crucial work by Mayers and Williams) oriented to addressing paternal mental health issues, spearheaded by third sector organisations, and a host of activists, support groups and researchers.
It is against this context we are currently interviewing fathers who have experienced anxiety or depression after having a baby, as part of our new project on fathers, mental health and social media. The project brings together our respective interests in fathers as primary and equal carers (Hodkinson, with Rachel Brooks), and perinatal maternal wellbeing and the internet (Das). We’re asking dads about the circumstances that led to their difficulties, their ways of coping and, in particular, the role that social media may have played as part of this.
We’re currently halfway through our fieldwork with dads and, while findings will take a while to process, we share here some initial reflections on the fathers’ accounts. We focus particularly on some themes that relate to the disclosure of difficult experiences and emotions to others, something widely studied in relation to wellbeing in social scientific literature. So, we were interested in exploring:
- Do fathers experience a need to disclose perinatal mental health difficulties to others?
- How easy or difficult is it for them to self-disclose and what barriers do they face?
- What role do digital platforms play in the process of self-disclosure?
Difficulties with disclosure
- Need to disclose: We are hearing many accounts of feelings of isolation and loneliness in dads’ mental health struggles and of their recognition of the need to feel less alone in their suffering by disclosing to and seeking support from others.
- Barriers to disclosure: But fathers had often experienced substantial barriers to self-disclosure…
- Fathers often felt unable to disclose to their partners, often for the fear of burdening them – linked to a masculine discourse of guilt/self-responsibilisation – and sometimes because partners’ own post-natal struggles made such conversations difficult. This relates to a broader theme in the field – often partners are suffering mental health challenges simultaneously and this can make mutual support challenging.
- Many had sought professional help but often not until difficulties had become severe. Moreover, the need for disclosure to friends, relatives and/or other fathers remained intense even in the midst of professional treatment.
- Some had benefited from the company provided by parents’ groups, but discussion of mental health issues remained difficult. One commented that, during dad meet-ups with children present, conversation remained surface-level. Another noted that, while he had discussed common issues such as birth trauma with local mothers, it was difficult to disclose more particular aspects of his emotional struggles.
Social media as a solution? Engagement, Affective Coding, Disconnection
- Engagement: Fathers’ use of the internet as part of their struggles often connected to the need to feel less alone. Many spoke of the value of reading about other fathers’ struggles – engaging with the public self-disclosures of others – whether on local fathers’ groups, Twitter or blogs.
- Limited self-disclosure: Yet, with one or two exceptions, self-disclosing their own stories remained hard and most fathers had engaged primarily as readers, with occasional cursory, supportive replies as far as they’d felt comfortable to go. Even these limited contributions, though, could feel like significant moments.
- Affective coding: We advance the idea of ‘affective coding’ to highlight how some fathers used the affordances of digital platforms to make indirect, coded attempts to disclose their struggles. One father signalled for help by ‘liking’ posts on anxiety or depression and hoping the Twitter algorithm will place his ‘like’ on followers’ Twitter feeds and that this may initiate communication with them. Another described sharing a general article on fathers’ PND as an indirect way of signalling his personal struggles.
- The act of doing something seemingly fleeting and non-personal – such as a like or share – thus becomes “affectively encoded” with self-disclosure and the anticipation of support.
- Such coded disclosure attempts were not always interpreted as such by readers, however, and this could exacerbate loneliness and frustration. Affective encoding, then, does not always result in affective decoding by others.
- Private channels on social platforms: Fathers often use the more private components of public digital platforms to help themselves cope. Examples of this included use of Facebook’s private Messager to enhance partner communication, when sitting 20 feet apart, expressing intense emotions to close family via a WhatsApp group, and private messaging with an anonymous Metafilter contact halfway across the world, leading to an empowering parent-to-parent relationship.
- Disconnection: Sometimes it was fathers’ disconnections from social media that came to the fore, the plethora of communication on such platforms having been identified as exacerbating their difficulties. Fathers sometimes had unfollowed friends or stopped using platforms altogether as a result of the difficulty of seeing stories about other people’s ‘perfect’ lives or, conversely, the inability to engage with their myriad problems. One father identified his disconnection from Facebook as a pivotal moment in turning himself around.
- It remains possible that in some (though not all) circumstances, disconnective practices may also act as a further example of affective coding – a way to communicate struggles and the need for help.
At this stage, these remain only early reflections and many more themes may emerge as the project progresses. IFMHD 2018, though, has offered a valuable opportunity to work through and share some of our early thinking. Against the backdrop of discussion on how men struggle to communicate about mental health, and some debate around the validity of using natality related terminology for men’s perinatal mental illnesses, we hope to provide much-needed evidence on how fathers cope with and communicate about their perinatal struggles -and what role digital and social media technologies play in the process.
If you are interested in participating in our research, please see https://fathersmentalhealth.wordpress.com/
Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.