Celebrating dads: New dads to be screened for depression

For the first time in Australia, new fathers will be screened for depression through a state health service. With a $2.4 million grant from the Health Innovation Fund, NSW Health has launched a Focus on New Fathers (FONF) pilot program targeting 30,000 fathers in four Local Health Districts.

The FONF pilot will use SMS4dads, an innovative digital platform to reach men expecting a baby/with a newborn to provide information and a screening tool throughout the transition to fatherhood.  

SMS4dads, developed by researchers from the University of Newcastle and HMRI,  sends three texts per week with tips and information about infant development to fathers’ phones from 16 weeks into the pregnancy until the baby is 12 months of age.

The Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10),which is used in state and national surveys to monitor mental illness, will be embedded in the SMS4dads text messages at five points.

Distressed fathers will be contacted by the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia helpline.

As well as testing the identification and referral of those with distress the pilot will also attempt to increase clinician awareness and confidence in providing support to new fathers.

 “We know that a father’s mental health is vital to a well-functioning family”  says SMS4dads program lead Associate Professor Richard Fletcher “and health services recognise that dads can be depressed too, but this is the first State health service to pilot screening for fathers as part of health service provision on this scale”.

 The SMS4dads program uses the ‘voice’ of the baby to deliver messages that are synchronised with the development of the fathers’ foetus and baby. The messages on interacting with a new baby, supporting mothers and staying healthy are brief but have links to further online information.

Previous programs using SMS4dads have reported extremely positive reactions from dads to the baby ‘voice’ and to the program overall. Between 80 and 90% of participants stay with the program until the end even though they can opt out at any time.

In a South Australian pilot study 92% of fathers said the messages helped in their transition to becoming a father. The texts also helped to bond with their baby and coparent with their partner.

Comments from participants included “When other people tell me what to do, that doesn’t really work for me, but when the message came from my baby asking me to read to her – well, what could I do?” “The texts were a great conversation starter with my wife, I forwarded quite a few through to her.” “The way the messages would pop up and sometimes the timing was just right to give you a boost or a smile amidst everything – like a mate tapping you on the shoulder.”

The FONF program is being launched on Fathers Day 2020 and will run into 2021. Dads from NSW can register at  www.sms4dads.com

The Australian Men's Health Forum is celebrating dads ahead of Father's Day on September 6 with a series of articles on fathering and highlighting initiatives that support men and boys.

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