When we think of postnatal depression we tend to think of women. We also tend to attribute it to hormone changes, from giving birth. In fact, there are a variety of factors contributing to depression of any kind, including change shock and post-traumatic stress. That puts men at risk of developing PNDA (Perinatal Depression & Anxiety) as well as women. It might surprise you to discover that one in ten have it, according to a study on perinatal depression by PwC Australia.
Peerhear CEO Pete Burge makes no secret of being the one in ten. He believes that this condition going unrecognised in men is the cause of needless suffering and poor mental health. Perhaps even suicide. He’s adamant that nothing will change until we successfully remove the stigma of talking openly about how we are feeling. All of us. Men and women.
With this in mind, we sat around the firepit for an open chat with Pete on his experiences following the birth of his son.
How did you react to the news that you were expecting a baby?
I was absolutely ecstatic. But I remember being anxious in the prior months, about whether we would fall pregnant easily, because friends were having trouble. I thought I’d be in that group, for sure. My wife is a great planner and knew exactly the right timing for trying for a baby. I started thinking of myself as a thoroughbred horse, expected to deliver great outcomes or disappoint. I couldn’t escape the feeling that our future was on my shoulders. I don’t even know if that’s normal in these situations because nobody tells you.
Thankfully, we didn’t have any difficulty. But it’s not a romantic memory for me. I had the weight of expectation bearing down on me. As you can imagine, finding out we were having a baby was a huge release from that pressure.
How did you feel during pregnancy?
I had Kate to look after, to occupy my mind. She had morning sickness, so I would bring her cereal as soon as she woke up. If she ate it in bed as soon as she opened her eyes, the sickness subsided. I was also occupied with my career running a TV production company. It all seems a little too perfect, looking back. I now know, I should have been preparing myself mentally and emotionally for bringing a new human into our lives.
How was the birth experience for you?
I was in alpha male support mode, determined to show up for Kate and make everything ok. It wasn’t what Kate needed. Kate was having contractions and there I was trying to pep talk her through them: “Block it out, it’s only pain.” As you can imagine, she asked me to leave. Not in those words, either.
Kate wanted to give birth without pain relief. That plan was abandoned after a few hours of excruciating pain. One very welcome epidural later she went from primal screaming to sitting in bed having a cup of Earl Grey.
When our son was being born I spent equal time at the business end talking to the obstetrician as at the top of the bed holding Kate’s hand. Watching my son emerge, I was besotted. Time stood still. Nothing else in the world existed except for me staring in disbelief at this little person with a full head of black hair and the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen, entering the world. Kate and I were genuinely happy.
What were the first days like?
I felt incredible. Super human! But at the same time I felt emotional. Those third day blues arrived for me on day two. I remember holding my little boy with tears streaming down my face and an all consuming fear that I wouldn’t be able to protect him from some of the emotions that haunted me as a child, like all-consuming fear.
When did you know something was wrong?
I had spent the day crying. Come night time, I knew I was mentally “off”. I had experienced anxiety before, as well as addiction. I recognised the dark place my mind was going to. I just didn’t know why.
Soon afterwards I was sitting in the maternity room while Kate was in the bathroom and all reality dropped away from me very suddenly. I felt confused, afraid and overwhelmingly alone. I couldn’t move and I knew it was a panic attack. Kate re-appeared and asked me if I was ok. While my mind screamed “no” I heard myself say “yes, I’m fine.” Things could have been so different if only I’d had the courage to admit I needed help.
Did you talk to anyone?
It felt like something I had to keep to myself. And I did, for as long as possible! I acted the role I’d been taught in my upbringing. Real men don’t complain. Man up and get on with it. It turned out to be dangerous behaviour. While I could have been getting the support I needed to nip things in the bud, I was amplifying destructive feelings by forcing them to one side.
Then, the truly terrifying thoughts began. Thoughts of harming my son. Of purposefully dropping him, throwing him from a moving car, or off our balcony onto the concrete below. It was unbearable in my fragile state of mind and I retreated inside myself. I questioned whether I’d become a psychopathic murderer. I was living in hell.
Did you recognise what you were going through as postnatal depression?
Absolutely not. I thought it was some kind of dementia. I thought if I told anyone I’d be whisked away to a psychiatric ward by the men in white coats. I didn’t know I had PNDA so I didn’t look for help. I called the men's healthline a few times but it felt disconnected and awkward. I thought about seeing a psychologist, but feared my family would be taken away from me.
Years later, I created the online, lived experience support platform Peerhear to reach out to people like me who had no clue which way to turn in times of psychological distress, though telehealth connections.
How did you eventually overcome postnatal depression?
I had to come clean as my physical symptoms were obvious. I’d stopped eating and lost weight. I’d completely disengaged with the world. My wife got me on a cancellation list for a clinical psychologist. It was frightening. The appointment was next to a hospital, which didn’t help with my psychosis about the men in white coats. But I did go in. And as usual, the world didn’t end that day.
During our chat my therapist confronted me with a question about whether I’d had any violent thoughts. Everything inside me wanted to vehemently deny it. I remember holding my breath before answering. And, I remember the sheer relief when he explained I was experiencing a severe emotional and psychological response to a significant event in my life. It was postnatal depression. I must have reacted, because he immediately assured me that yes, men can have it too.
Those terrifying thoughts I had were natural for a self-aware male with control issues. I finally recognised them for what they were: fears. Not something I would act upon because that would mean that I wasn’t in control. My ongoing battle was proof that I was in control. They were simply the result of a chemical reaction in my brain that exacerbated existing symptoms of panic and depression.
Should we be talking about this more?
Yes! It’s so important and it’s a big reason I started Peerhear. We should be making parents-to-be aware of postnatal depression and what to do if they suspect they have it. More than that, my hope is that one day it will become a topic that new parents feel comfortable discussing openly.
Becoming a parent is both the best and hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nobody talks about the challenges though. It’s almost taboo. We live in a culture hellbent on maintaining the illusion of being perfect parents that take everything in our stride. We put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves and it’s a recipe for a mental health disaster.
I believe we have a duty of care to each other, too. We owe it to the dad that seems quiet, fidgety or overly withdrawn to call it out. To be there for him.
If you’re a dad that’s struggling, please tell someone. If like I was, you’re not ready for that to be someone close to you, contact us here at Peerhear. We know how you feel.
Book here for a free 15 minute call.