One every 90 minutes in the UK. That is how often a baby is lost during pregnancy. If it is so common, then why is it still such a taboo topic for men? Iwan James interviews those who have experienced the tragedies and how they made it through.
Baby loss. For such a life-changing event, it is often a topic that is ignored and stigmatised. When 42 year old Julie Adams from Kent lost her baby due to stillbirth her partner, Peter Lane, could not comprehend it. His head was so preoccupied by the news that he was hit by a car on the way home without even realising it was happening leaving him with two broken legs. “I think that just shows the state of his mental health at the time.” Julie says. “He said his head was all over the place. At the time had somebody said to him are you ok, he could’ve avoided the accident. It was horrific.” The difficulties following the loss eventually contributed to the couple’s separation, highlighting just how significant the event can be on a couple’s relationship. “Even before we split, he couldn’t talk about it.”
International Fathers Mental Health Day was created in 2016 and a 2019 study during Baby Loss Awareness week found that over 60% of men felt suicidal following a loss and that the support available was not sufficient. That same study showed that the support that so many parents wanted following a baby loss was not accessible on the NHS to 60% of them, with fathers also feeling they were not acknowledged in the same way as their partner.
The fact of the matter is that there is some support out there for men such as therapy and counselling following a loss. However, men are often unwilling to accept this due to the decades of negative reinforcement. An example is telling men that they should “man up” and that showing emotions is a weakness. But there is still a massive division between the support that fathers who lost a child get and their partners.
Whilst a lot of stereotypes have been busted, such as men are typically seen in a societal outdated cliché as the providers in their relationship, there is still the notion that men should remain strong following a miscarriage. This often means that they do not take time for their own grieving. One in six men have a mental health problem (according to a 2020 study) which means a loss like this could exacerbate them further. For some who do not have a problem, a loss will inevitably have a profound impact on their mental health. As Hayley Wheeler, 45, who runs her own business as an emotional empowerment coach helping both men and women work through a variety of mental health problems, says: “They (men) don’t feel like they experienced having the baby therefore why should they have postpartum depression. Men think they shouldn’t engage with their emotions anytime where emotions are triggered, it is quite hard to deal with when they are feeling like it’s not their right.”
Another issue which often worsens matters is social media. “If you’re following men who are promoting that men should be men, then that will have a negative effect on you,” Says Hayley. “Social media presents perfection so when somebody is struggling it’s tough to watch.”
Social media can be a positive though. Mark Williams, who helped create International Fathers Mental Health Day and has been campaigning for mental health support for fathers for a decade, spoke about how social media can provide a platform to voice stories and help fathers realise that they are not alone. “I wouldn’t have been able to support fathers without social media as a lot want acknowledgement that there’s more out there and they shouldn’t feel as guilty (about their mental health issues). That is enough for some.
“There’s a myth that men don’t talk. Men don’t talk unless you put them in a safe environment.”
So, how else can we support fathers who have lost a child during pregnancy? Well it varies from person to person according to Mark who set up his own walk and talk group back in 2019 which has been very successful. He says: “Men talk better side by side in my opinion. It’s all about offloading baggage from their losses.”
Medication and counselling is the tried and tested medical model with 70% of men who have lost a child being recommended support according to SANDS. But that means 30% of men do not get the recommendation. There is a large demand for more investment following austerity cuts into medical treatments such as therapy, but it is far from the only treatment available.
The charity SANDS has helped to create SANDS United FC teams all across the UK to help fathers who have lost a child come together to play the beautiful game. Pete Hill, 36, who plays for the Doncaster team, says: “The lads who play are all in a similar situation. For me, therapy was just a token gesture.” As Hayley says: “Having that support from someone who has been there is underrated. We don’t promote it enough.”
Hayley also recommends that hobbies can help work through any problems that a man may experience. “The aim of them (hobbies) is to find unique support for each person.” This could include fishing, gardening, sports and other hobbies that may have been disregarded previously as treatments. But as Hayley says: “We know about the medical model and the talking therapies, those are the ones that are traditional support mechanisms but there are so many other ways to look after your mental health. We just don’t tap into them well.”
Hayley also alludes to the the concept of Reiki and massage therapy as she says: “Those kinds of things can shift emotions and mental health in a way that you wouldn’t assume that they can because people don’t connect the physical, emotional and the mental but they are hugely linked.” It may not be conclusive but it could potentially succeed, where ‘typical’ support has failed, in allowing fathers to shift their mental health problems.
Overall, the issue of father’s mental health following a baby loss will continue to be taboo until society realises that men speaking about their problems is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of courage that should be supported. As Mark says: “Mental health doesn’t discriminate any age or any gender. It can come up at any point.” There is a long way to go in terms of the funding and support systems availability. “We are getting better, it’s not that we’re not trying, we’re just not where we are meant to be.” Says Hayley.