There is greater awareness and education about matters which affect new mothers and fathers today. The perinatal period, which includes the period from the beginning of pregnancy and up to a year post birth, is a time when depression and/or anxiety may occur, affecting the expectant or parenting mother’s mental and emotional health. Perinatal depression or anxiety can occur as separate conditions, whilst in some cases, may coexist. It is estimated that approximately 16% of women and 10% of men are affected by the condition.
In any case, perinatal depression and/or anxiety is being identified increasingly as a problem seriously affecting pregnant and parenting mums along with its consequent impact on partners and family. The recognition that it is an authentic illness means that at the very least, it’s a talked-about subject. The fact remains, though, that it is an often “hidden” condition due to it not being recognised early, let alone being appropriately diagnosed and treated.
The early signs of depression and anxiety may not be clearly identifiable and therefore, easily brushed aside. In the case of a mum with a new baby, she and those close to her may believe that she is overtired and, once she adjusts to her new role, things will improve. Often, the partner recognises that something more serious is occurring and that she needs professional help.
Many women suffer silently, unable to ask for help as they are either unaware of what is really going on, perhaps trying desperately to put on a brave face to the outside world that they’re okay, or because they are worried that they will be judged as not coping with motherhood. Feelings of shame and guilt can surface for some, and her self-esteem may suffer, as she questions – everyone else is managing, then why aren’t I?
Whilst some women are more prone to developing perinatal depression than others, there are elements which are precursors. Psycho-social factors include individual social circumstances, such as geographical isolation from family networks, feeling a lack of support from partner, a past history of anxiety or depression, previous pregnancy losses – to name a few, have been shown as predictors for women. Unable to complete simple tasks, such as doing the laundry, washing up, not wanting to socialise, or excessive sleeping may be signs of depression. Having extreme worry, checking on baby constantly, fearing something terrible is going to happen, having intrusive thoughts can be signs of anxiety which is often just as debilitating as depression.
Perinatal depression not only affects the woman experiencing it, but, like a pebble thrown into still waters, the ‘ripples’ disperse to other aspects of life and can impact on partner, baby, other children and family members who are unwittingly swept up in the tide of depression. The impact of unrecognised and untreated perinatal depression/anxiety is the toll it can take on relationships and on families. GPs, psychologists and accredited health professionals can assist in a diagnosis, and can support with treatment planning.
Seeing your GP to talk about any physical and emotional health issues which are concerning you is a positive step toward managing your wellbeing so you are in the best position to take control of your life. The new role of motherhood has many demands and you deserve to be able to live your life to its fullest. Being in optimal health will enable you to manage your own needs and of those closest. Just speak up is the national campaign developed by Beyond Blue to raise awareness of perinatal mental health, the message being that it is okay to ask for help and that there is understanding and support for those who are affected.
As a community we are recognising that mental health is a major health concern in Australia that impacts on people from all backgrounds and that we need to work hard at overcoming barriers to support. If the information in this article causes you to wonder about yourself, or someone close to you, help is available. It is through education and greater awareness in the community, and particularly to expectant and new parents, that those who are at risk will see the signs and get the help that they need.
Author: Judy Tierney
Counselling Coordinator of Pregnancy Counselling Link