Men’s experiences of having a partner who requires Mother and Baby Unit admission for first episode postpartum psychosis.
Perinatal mental health services and organisations such as APP are becoming increasingly aware of the need to support and involve partners of women who have experienced postpartum psychosis (PP). However, there has previously been little academic research into the needs of partners during this time. A recent study has focused on the experiences of seven men whilst their partner and baby were admitted to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) for treatment of PP. The author of the paper has written a piece for APP to tell us more about the findings of the study and how this could affect how services work with partners in future.
Research has told us that PP can have a life changing impact on women’s experiences of motherhood, relationships and sense of self. Their partners also often need to adjust to understanding the condition and support recovery. Perhaps understandably, the vast majority of perinatal health research and clinical practice has previously been focussed on the wellbeing of the mother and baby. Whilst dads are being increasingly recognised it is often in their capacity as a partner who is supporting the mother, rather than as a person in their own right. In the research, it remains unclear how dads are affected by the severe and sudden nature of PP and by the separation from their partner and baby during their admission to an MBU. This study aimed to explore dads’ experiences of early fatherhood and relationships during their partner’s admission for their first episode of PP, to help improve our understanding of their needs and how services can work with families during this difficult time.
How was the study conducted?
Seven fathers were recruited from two UK MBUs. For all participants, this was their first child with their partner. All of the men’s partners were inpatients on an MBU at the time of being recruited but were nearing discharge after having some periods of home leave. The men took part in interviews, which were analysed using an approach which focuses on making sense of how people understand their individual experiences.
What were the main findings?
The participants’ stories reflected the natural uncertainty surrounding the birth of a child, which was amplified by the unexpected onset of a severe mental health problem. There were two main themes within these fathers’ stories which are detailed below and illustrated with quotes from the interviews. All names used are pseudonyms to protect the participants’ anonymity.
Main theme 1: What the f**k is going on?
This theme reflects the lack of understanding surrounding PP and its treatment. Frustration and anger were common, perhaps due to feeling helpless, loss of control and fearful. Most men found it difficult to recognise the early stages of PP, as they were not sure what is normal for a new mother. For most, this was their first child and their first direct experience of a mental health difficulty.
I… didn’t really see the… signs because A. I’m not experienced in them and B. I knew there was something up but I put it down to her being absolutely over exhausted. (James)
As symptoms progressed to the more acute stages, men expressed a range of emotions such as shock, confusion and embarrassment. Experiences of seeking professional help were varied. Health professionals (e.g. GP’s or A&E staff) didn’t always know about PP which sometimes led to a delay in treatment and frustration for partners. Most of the participants didn’t know what PP was when the diagnosis was first given, although having a name for their partner’s difficulties often seemed to give some sense of understanding and hope. Some found the internet useful for finding more information, including personal stories from other families on the APP website.
At the time, if I remember rightly, I didn’t even hear the postpartum… it was just psychosis… So I didn’t even relate it to any giving birth…. It was just, my wife’s gone psychotic. (Neil)
Following diagnosis, all participants wanted to be involved in their partner’s care; however not feeling heard or valued by professionals was common. Many felt their concerns were dismissed and not taken seriously. There was lots of frustration with confidentiality procedures and the priority seemed to be on mother and baby, not dads. Some were comfortable in challenging this and asking for information, others were less so. When done well, information sharing and involvement helped dads’ understanding of what was happening for their partner.
For the first five days, all I got was, ‘you’re not married, your son’s not registered, you’ve got no right to know where they are or what’s going on’. And that’s all I got, from everybody. So all I knew was, my son had disappeared, my girlfriend had disappeared. (Tim)
I think I might have got on the doctor’s nerves a little bit. Because [the doctor] was…
like, ‘well, this is about me and your partner’, but obviously [my partner]… might not
even think of the questions that I think of. (Neil)
Main theme 2: Time to figure out how your family works
This theme captures the impact of PP on the roles, relationships and identity within the family.
Most participants felt more responsibility to care for both their partner and baby as PP symptoms progressed. Many dads felt pushed to their coping limits and appreciated help from family and friends. Some women were first admitted to general inpatient units which were not felt to be very helpful or appropriate. MBU admission was usually a relief and gave permission for dads to look after themselves. Many trusted the MBU staffs’ expertise and saw it as an opportunity for learning and growth. However, handing over caring responsibility was difficult for some.
We were doing the right thing… It was a relief that somebody else was going to look after her and the medication…. I could come in, give her… all my attention for… a few hours in the morning, a few in the afternoon, a few in the night… And I knew the baby was being taken care of. But then I’d go back and have time to… recharge my batteries. (Michael)
Most dads felt a huge loss for their relationship and partner during this time. Many felt alone; the shared experience of starting a family with their partner had taken very separate paths. Some went through a grieving process as their partner’s identity seemed to have been changed by PP. For others PP was seen as something external ‘taking over’ their partner.
She was here but I thought her personality was dead, so my relationship with her personality is dead … My personality clicks with her personality, yeah and if she’s not there… our relationship isn’t there… it felt like she was dead. So when I was at home I felt like I was single. I felt like I’d lost everything. (Ashley)
Men tended to feel less loss around the separation from their child; this relationship was often seen as more stable and positive. Many had started to reconnect with their partner as they started to recover, but the long-term impact was unclear. Most did not want more children because of future risk of PP.
It’s just not worth… the risk… to my partner. And obviously the baby would be there as well. That’s… one of my concerns… she might never have a brother or sister… I’ve got a brother and he’s my best mate… My child won’t have that and I feel guilty about that, for her. But… I just don’t think, well, at this point in time anyway, that it would be an option. (Michael)
PP delayed adjustment to being a family, which was often made worse by large distances between home and the MBU. There were lost opportunities to do ‘normal’ activities with the baby and some expectations of parenthood were not met.
You feel, a bit deflated…. Because you’ve got two weeks off from work, you have all these plans to do these great things and bed down and suddenly that two weeks is gone. Because you’re in hospital. And then you… need to go back to work but we haven’t had time to bond at home. (Neil)
For some it was hard to parent the way they wanted to on the MBU but others had more positive experiences. Some were worried about how family life would be when returning home, whilst others saw their family as ‘back to normal’ already.
I don’t want to say it’s made us grow up… but I suppose it has… It’s made us… become my parents… It’s a different life to the one we’d sort of planned, even while she was pregnant. (Matthew)
Recommendations from the research
Whilst only a small number of experiences were reported in this study, some recommendations can be made to try to improve future practice and research in this increasingly important area:
- Improved awareness of PP is needed, for both health professionals and the public, to allow faster diagnosis, access to the right treatment and less stigma around the condition.
- Improved access to MBUs is needed. In this study, general mental health services were not viewed as appropriate by dads (previous research has found women feel the same). Many men had to travel large distances to visit their family due to the lack of availability of local units, which created increased stress, separation and financial pressures.
- Health services need to improve how they work together with fathers. Many felt excluded from their partner and baby’s care, causing more frustration and confusion.
- The timing and type of support services offer to fathers should be considered; even if men say ‘no’ once they might need help in future. Many of the participants reported not feeling ready to talk about what was happening until the time was right for them.
- Sometimes services do get it right! Most men had positive experiences of MBUs and saw them as a valuable resource which helped their partner’s recovery and their own ability to support their family.
- The sample of participants was limited; more research is needed with partners with different backgrounds and family structures (e.g. different cultures, families with multiple children).
The researchers would like to thank all of the men who took part in the study and their partners for consenting to this at a challenging and emotional time for their families. Thanks also go to the staff teams at the MBUs who helped in recruiting for the study.