Researchers found that men whose partners had an unintended pregnancy were twice as likely to experience mental health problems postnatally
“Unplanned pregnancies are very common and feeling unsure about parenthood is valid. An approach of normalising and validating men’s uncertainty at this vulnerable time is essential. It is important to screen fathers and partners for adverse mental health outcomes as part of any service that they engage with.” Imogene Smith, lecturer, The Cairnmillar Institute, and lead author
A partner’s unintended pregnancy can have a detrimental effect on the mental health of new fathers, a study has found.
The research, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, was based on a systematic review and meta-analysis of 23 different studies, involving more than 8,000 fathers in total. In total, the researchers examined 23 different studies that involved more than 8,000 fathers in different countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, China and Canada.
The researchers found that fathers whose partners had experienced unintended pregnancies were more than twice as likely to face mental health difficulties as those who had planned pregnancies. Those difficulties included depression, anxiety, stress, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Fathers who experienced unintended pregnancies still faced mental health difficulties not only in the immediate postpartum period but also up to a year after the birth, the research found.
Unintended pregnancy is known to be a risk factor for maternal mental ill-health, the authors of the study write, but there has been less research on the impact on fathers. The researchers note, however, that qualitative evidence from men’s online discussion groups “suggests links between unintended fatherhood and poor postpartum mental health, apparent in men’s disclosures of considerable distress post unplanned birth.”
Imogene Smith, a lecturer and psychologist at The Cairnmillar Institute, and lead author on the study, told the publication PsyPost: “The systematic review and meta-analysis included every paper worldwide that reported results on fathers who recorded that the pregnancy was unintended from their point of view and then reported on their mental health.
“For most of these mental health outcomes, there were not enough studies to combine the results. However, when we combined all the mental health results into one big analysis, it was clear that unintended pregnancies double the odds of poor mental health outcomes for fathers. We also found that unintended fatherhood is associated with a doubling of the odds of depression. This means that for fathers who did not intend to have a child, they are at greater risk of developing postnatal depression.”
The impact of unintended pregnancies on fathers’ mental health varied depending on the country’s economic status. In lower- and middle-income countries, the effects on fathers’ mental well-being were more pronounced than in high-income countries. “The repercussions on life trajectories following unplanned pregnancies are more profound for those with fewer parental resources and supports, particularly in countries where low income is additionally associated with poorer maternal-infant health,” the study’s authors write.
The researchers also found that whether a man was a first-time father or already had children didn’t make a major difference in terms of how unplanned pregnancies affected their mental health. “It was interesting that first-time fathers and fathers to multiple children were equally at risk of depression when the current pregnancy/baby was unintended,” Smith said.
There are reasons to be cautious about generalising from the study’s findings, which were based on studies that varied in methodology. It may be that longitudinal studies tracking fathers’ mental health over an extended period could provide a fuller insight into why fathers’ mental health is affected, and how long the impact lasts.
“For health and mental health professionals, we need an inclusive approach to parenthood,” Smith said. “Unplanned pregnancies are very common and feeling unsure about parenthood is valid. An approach of normalising and validating men’s uncertainty at this vulnerable time is essential. It is important to screen fathers and partners for adverse mental health outcomes as part of any service that they engage with.”
The mental health of new fathers is under-researched, so we welcome this systematic review that brings together findings on the impact of unintended pregnancy on fathers. It is already well-established that new mothers whose pregnancy was unplanned are more than twice as likely to develop postnatal depression, so it is not surprising to see a similar effect in new fathers, because the social, emotional and financial impact of an unwanted pregnancy are felt by both parents. The findings point to the importance of screening new fathers for mental health problems, and in particular of being aware of unplanned pregnancy as a risk factor for both mothers and fathers.