I suffered my first ever panic attack at thirty years of age and I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me. It was the day my son was born. My wife Michelle was taken to theatre for an emergency C-section and I honestly thought she was going to die. I was terrified.
Thankfully, both Michelle and my son survived but sometime later, we realised Michelle was suffering from anxiety and depression. Michelle was so I’ll crisis teams were involved.
During this period, I experienced nightmares about Michelle and Ethan dying in the theatre. I would wake up thinking it was real. Sadly, Michelle went on to develop severe postnatal depression and my world changed forever.
I had never known anyone with the illness. I was so uneducated about mental health I used to wonder: ‘how can people be depressed?’ Within weeks of Michelle’s diagnosis, I had to give up my job to care for Michelle and Ethan. I had loved the social side of my job and I was totally isolated. It was the loneliest time in my life and felt scared. I wouldn’t get out the front door for days. Within months, my personality changed and I was drinking in an attempt to cope.
I became angry. It got to the point where, if I did manage to get out with friends, I wanted to fight the doorman. I had this strange need to get hurt to try and stop what I was feeling and the thoughts that were going through my head.
I began to have uncontrollable suicidal thoughts, but never acted on them.
At the time, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone. I was raised in a working-class community where my father and grandfather were coal miners. Growing up we looked up to ‘hard men’ who didn’t show their emotions and now I was feeling emotional – and I was feeling weak. I kept telling myself I just had to ‘man up’ and everything would be okay.
It was difficult not knowing how long my wife would be unwell for. In the end, it took around eighteen months before she started to feel better, and of course, it affected our relationship. It so often causes the breakdown of families when there’s no early intervention. I didn’t feel I could tell my wife how I was feeling and I didn’t want to risk it impacting on her mental health.
I also didn’t want it on my medical records as I loved working and providing for my family. I suffered in silence for years. And then, my mother, who I loved so much was diagnosed with cancer.
My dark thoughts and nightmares worsened.
For months, I had been lying to Michelle and telling her I was going to work but in fact I was isolating myself from people. I felt totally alone.
One day, whilst sitting in my car before walking into work, I had a complete breakdown. I just literally couldn’t get out the car, I was shaking, crying and suicidal thoughts were racing through my mind.
While in the car, I phoned a mental health organisation and was told to seek help. I was ready to embrace everything as I didn’t want my son to be fatherless. He may have saved my life.
Eventually, I was put on medication, took a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. I was lucky to be able to turn things around. While under a community mental health team, I was diagnosed with ADHD. Professionals have also suggested I would have been diagnosed with PTSD and postnatal depression if I had accessed help earlier.
If I had been screened early enough, I think I would have managed it so much better. I felt completely unprepared for the birth and I was totally unaware that fathers could have even develop postnatal depression. I didn’t bond with Ethan during his first weeks, it wasn’t this overwhelming feeling of love I was expecting. I feel I was different as a father back then.
I am so thankful to say that both Michelle and I are doing well these days and have a great bond with our son. My mother also recovered and is still cancer free today.
I want people – and particularly fathers – to know that there is help out there.
When both parents are supported it has far better outcomes!
I am now a campaigner, author and keynote speaker who founded International Father’s Mental Health Day which is in June every year. Why? Over half a million male suicides globally happens each year and the biggest killer in men under 50 is suicide..How many are dad’s???
Also look at our #Howareyoudad
We need people to talk more and we need to see money ploughed into mental health in the same way that it’s been put into cancer. There’s so much we know about cancer – because we’ve had the research – but we just don’t have the same level of knowledge about mental health. In the next ten years, I think we’re going to see a massive shift. I’m hopeful for the future.
Mark is the founder of Reaching Out PMH.