A recent scientific study sheds light on a crucial aspect of fatherhood that often goes unnoticed – the impact of unintended pregnancies on men’s mental health. The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, reveals that men who experience unintended births may be at a significantly higher risk of facing mental health difficulties in the postpartum period.
The authors of the new study were driven by a desire to understand how unintended pregnancies might influence men’s mental health during the crucial early years of parenthood. An unintended pregnancy is one that was not planned or expected, and it can lead to various emotional responses and challenges for both partners.
“My first published research paper was an exploration of men’s decisions to remain childless,” explained study author Imogene Smith, a lecturer and psychologist at The Cairnmillar Institute. “Based on these findings, I realised that some men who wanted to remain childless would, statistically, end up being fathers anyway. Approximately half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended so this is an issue that impacts a large number of people.”
Previous research had explored the link between maternal mental health and unintended pregnancies, but the impact on fathers has remained relatively unexplored. This study aimed to bridge that gap in knowledge and provide a comprehensive analysis of how men’s reproductive intentions, or lack thereof, might affect their mental well-being.
“When we think of postnatal depression, people tend to think only of mothers,” Smith said. “There is a growing field of research now that has demonstrated quite robustly that men are also at risk of adverse mental health outcomes during this vulnerable time. Partners can develop symptoms during the pregnancy, called antenatal depression or antenatal anxiety, or they can develop symptoms after the baby is born, referred to as postnatal depression or anxiety. As a researcher, I wanted to know if an unintended pregnancy was a risk factor for any poor mental health for fathers.”
The researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis, a statistical technique used in research to combine and analyze the results from multiple individual studies. By combining data from multiple studies, meta-analyses can provide more statistical power to detect true effects, even when individual studies may not have been large enough to do so.
This involved searching multiple databases for relevant studies published in English. Smith and her colleagues included studies that examined the relationship between men’s intention to have a child and their experiences of mental health issues during the postpartum period, up to the child’s age of 36 months.
In total, the researchers examined 23 different studies that involved more than 8,000 fathers. These studies came from various countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, China, Canada, and more, representing different cultural and economic backgrounds.
One of the main findings of this research was that fathers who experienced unintended pregnancies were more than twice as likely to face mental health difficulties compared to those who had planned pregnancies. This mental strain could manifest as depression, anxiety, stress, and even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Depression, in particular, stood out as a significant issue for new dads in these situations. Smith and her colleagues found that the odds of paternal postpartum depression were more than two times higher for men reporting unintended births compared to those who had intended pregnancies. This effect was even stronger than similar associations found in studies involving new mothers.
The timing of the assessments also mattered. 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. This suggests that the emotional challenges of an unplanned pregnancy can be long-lasting.
“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,” Smith told PsyPost. “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.”
Surprisingly, the research didn’t find a significant link between unintended pregnancies and anxiety or stress in men, but this might be due to limited data on these aspects. Only a few studies focused on anxiety and stress in fathers in the context of unplanned pregnancies.
The impact of unintended pregnancies on paternal mental health seemed to vary depending on the country’s economic status. In lower- and middle-income countries, the effects on fathers’ mental well-being were more pronounced compared to high-income countries. This suggests that economic and social factors could play a role in how men react to unplanned parenthood.
The researchers also found that whether a man was a first-time father or already had children didn’t seem to make a big difference in terms of how unplanned pregnancies affected their mental health. This suggests that the emotional impact of unintended fatherhood isn’t related to experience but more about the unexpected nature of the event.
“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.
While this study provides valuable insights into the relationship between unintended pregnancies and paternal mental health, it’s essential to acknowledge its limitations. For example, the measurement of reproductive intentions may not have been consistent across all studies, and more standardized approaches are needed. Longitudinal studies that track fathers’ mental health over an extended period could provide a deeper understanding of how these issues evolve.
In conclusion, this research highlights the significance of considering men’s mental health in the context of unintended pregnancies during early parenthood. The findings emphasize the need for increased awareness and support for fathers who may be grappling with the emotional challenges associated with unintended fatherhood.
“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 normalizing 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.”
“In our daily lives, it might be helpful to remember that not everyone wants children and we can’t assume that every person will be thrilled to be pregnant. If you know a new father or partner, check in on them, they might be struggling.”
The study, “Associations between unintended fatherhood and paternal mental health problems: A systematic review and meta-analysis“, was authored by Imogene Smith, Gypsy O’Dea, David Hilton Demmer, George Youssef, Georgia Craigie, Lauren M. Francis, Laetitia Coles, Levita D’Souza, Kat Cain, Tess Knight, Craig A. Olsson, and Jacqui A. Macdonald.