Postnatal depression left dad suicidal: 'Tiredness became something more sinister'

Dan Stanley shares his experience with postnatal depression. (Collect/PA Real Life)
Ex-army Dan Stanley shares his experience with postnatal depression to show that serious mental illness can affect anyone. (Collect/PA Real Life) ((Collect/PA Real Life))

A dad was left feeling suicidal after the birth of his first child in 2016 as he suffered from postnatal depression (PND), which nearly led to a permanent break down of his marriage.

Dan Stanley, 38, who has now overcome great challenges and is back together with his wife, is working to end the stigma around mental illness in men.

The award-winning former Army Commando lives in Swansea, South Wales, with his wife Rachael Flanagan, 34, and their two children, Sophia, five, and Spencer, three, where he runs the vital support organisation BetterMen.

"I wasn't sure at first if my feelings were down to the fatigue of having a newborn, but it escalated beyond the baby blues," says Stanley, reflecting on Sophia's birth.

"The standard tiredness became something much more sinister."

Dan with Sophia when she was a baby (Collect/PA Real Life).
Dan Stanley with his daughter Sophia, with her birth 'the best and worst day' of his life. (Collect/PA Real Life). (PA Real Life)

"But, being a man," he added, "I'd been conditioned to believe these messages that men have to be strong, silent, successful. It kept me in a place where I couldn't even interpret how I felt let alone share that with my wife."

Stanley says it left him with "this self-induced shame I just couldn't get out of".

Stanley believes he struggled so much emotionally with the stress of having a newborn due to a "perfect storm" of societal expectation and personal experience.

“I didn’t have a dad in my life growing up," he says. "My granddad was great, but he taught me the practicalities of life, not the emotions.”

After entering the military at 18, he led a very successful career, becoming one of only a small handful of people in the UK who were able to redesign an All Arms Commando course, and winning a commendation for contribution to Commando Forces.

But after 11 years in the service, he left in 2012 and joined Flanagan in her successful 300 people strong cleaning business.

As is the case for many who are ex-military, he struggled with his sense of identity as he returned to his civilian life, leaving him to always look back on his harrowing last day of service. He had had to identify the body of one of his soldiers who had been killed in a road traffic accident.

Read more: Men and depression: How to spot the signs and address it

Dan in the military (Collect/PA Real Life).
'I want my experiences to bust this myth of masculinity that professional success equals personal happiness,' says Dan Stanley. (Collect/PA Real Life). (PA Real Life)

"I drove up the M5 pretty much in tears," he recalled. "At the time I thought it was grief, but now I realise it was also loss of my own identity."

After working with his wife for a year and a half, he felt lost about his own purpose and so decided to establish himself as a personal trainer for athletes doing triathlons and mountain climbing.

However, he now sees this venture as a distraction from what was really going on. "I wasn't sure what my goals were or who I wanted to become," he says. "I threw myself into work and exercise to avoid those existential questions I couldn't answer."

It was during this identity crisis that Stanley experienced "the best and worst day" of his life, when little Sophia was born.

He found himself feeling worse than ever, a world away from where he thought he was supposed to feel as a new dad. "I was there for Sophia, practically," he says. "I wanted to be strong and help Rachael. But, inside, I just felt adrift."

Despite being physically strong, he was "at his most fragile mentally".

Read more: Talking mental health: What to say when someone's struggling

Dan with Rachael, Sophia and Spencer (Collect/PA Real Life).
Dan Stanley with his wife Rachael Flanagan, and their children Sophia and Spencer (Collect/PA Real Life). (PA Real Life)

Stanley says he didn't feel he was warned about how challenging being a new parent could be, and that while they did an antenatal course, all the focus was on the mother.

Stanley and Flanagan fell into a spiral, blaming each other for things going wrong in their marriage. They tried counselling when Sophia was four months old, but Stanley felt he was “too far gone” and “stuck in a spiral of negativity”.

Falling deeper into depression, he says, “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even interpret how I really felt.”

He tried to combat this by throwing himself into exercise. He would take it to the extreme and wake up at 3am to run a half marathon before his PT business. When the pair's daughter was seven months old, he made the decision to leave the marriage and move out.

It was then that he realised the problem was not parenting, but his inability to communicate about how he was feeling. “There was so much toxicity in the marriage. I felt worthless. We couldn’t even have a civil conversation. I couldn’t communicate and so Rachael couldn’t understand how I was feeling."

It was around this time that Stanley began feeling suicidal.

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Spencer, Dan, Sophia and Rachael (Collect/PA Real Life).
Stanley and Flanagan eventually felt they were able to welcome a second child into their life. (Collect/PA Real Life). (PA Real Life)

He says, “I was internalising all this shame and animosity towards myself. I’d gone from being a leader of men to not even being able to lead my own life. I couldn’t believe my life had imploded. I was just 33.

“I felt I’d done everything right to achieve fulfilment and success. But I was miserable and suffering in silence. I felt such a huge level of shame around it all.”

Stanley spent Christmas day alone in 2017 when he and Flanagan decided it was best for him not to see his family. He lied to his friends that he was busy and instead ran for 13 miles, coming home to a bottle of wine.

But, in rock bottom, he reached a turning point as he suddenly found himself reading a self-help book given to him by a client, something he previously told himself he'd never read. “By page 50, I’d discovered something no one had ever told me," he says. "I could turn down the volume on the critical voice in my head.”

Read more: Harry Styles says having therapy for his mental health has made him feel more 'alive'

Dan has set up a walking group called Men & Mountains, where a group of men climb mountains, connect and talk in nature (Collect/PA Real Life).
Stanley's group Men & Mountains, is a great way for men to connect and talk in nature. (Collect/PA Real Life). (PA Real Life)

The next day, he went for a long walk on the beach with his family of three. “Two young, healthy people, this beautiful baby all wrapped up in her carrier and our spaniel running around," he says. "We looked like a picture-perfect family. But we were miles from it.”

Nevertheless, over a meal in the pub, he and Flanagan decided to give things another go. He closed his PT business in 2018 to focus on his mental health and used the money he had saved for a divorce to fund a career break and spend time with Sophia, cycling, walking on the beach, reflecting and staying at a retreat.

During a counselling session, it was suggested to him he might have PND, something he didn't know men could get. But when he researched it, he realised, "That is me." This has made him determined to help men who find it hard to discuss their feelings, and encourage them to seek help when they need it most.

One in 10 dads will experience depression during their partner’s pregnancy, according to the National Childbirth Trust, the UK’s leading charity for parents, though exact figures on the numbers of men suffering after the birth are not available.

This, together with the shocking fact that suicide is the number one killer of men under 45 in the UK, according to The Samaritans, spurred on Dan’s career change – also as a bonus giving him that purpose he had been missing.

Watch: 5 top tips to boost your mental health

“I wanted to make my experiences something that could help bust this myth of masculinity that professional success equals personal happiness," he says.

In November 2018, Stanley launched BetterMen, a coaching practice where he enables men to become clearer on their purpose, in support of seeking fulfilment and happiness. He has worked with men from all walks of life, from famous sportspeople to reality TV stars and top executives. He also has a group called Men & Mountains, where a group of men now meet up once a month to climb mountains, connect and talk in nature.

Stanley says both he and Flanagan, “worked on ourselves and on the marriage” and, beautifully, eventually felt they were able to have a second child, Spencer, in March 2019. This time he displayed no symptoms of PND.

Read more: Duchess of Cambridge's brother shares mental health tips: 'I believe in the outdoors'

Flanagan admits it came as a complete shock to her when her husband experienced problems with his mental health. “Not for one minute did I ever consider that my ‘strong, full of life’ husband would struggle with his mental health," she says, proving how society's perception of masculinity can be so harmful.

“At the time, neither of us considered that what he was experiencing was potentially PND, but his inability to speak about how he felt, coupled with the challenges of being a first time parent broke our marriage.

“If we’d know more about the number of couples that struggle postnatally, I am sure our experience would have been different, but now I am very proud of Dan and what he represents.”

Watch: How can I improve my mental health?

Therapist and author Marisa Peer confirmed that male PND is not as rare as we might think.

She says: “PND in men is more common than people realise and it often goes undetected. It’s important to be aware of tell-tale signs, such as a shorter temper, uncharacteristic levels of anxiety, mood swings and general feeling of being low.

“This is typically assumed to be simply sleep deprivation, but it can be more serious. Just like women, men experience a change in their hormone levels following the birth of the baby and are also more susceptible if they are under 25, have a history of depression, or the mother is suffering from PND.”

If you think you are experiencing signs of PND, speak to someone you trust, a mental health professional, or your GP – there are many out there waiting to help.

You can also find help for PND from the Association for Post Natal Illness (APNI) via its helpline on 020 7386 0868 (10am to 2pm, Monday to Friday) or email, the Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support (PANDAS) on 0843 28 98 401 (9am to 8pm, Monday to Sunday) or NCT on 0300 330 0700 (8am to midnight, Monday to Sunday).

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts you can also call Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT to 85258 or email or Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) on 0800 58 58 58 – 5pm to midnight every day or visit the webchat page.

Additional reporting PA.