What is perinatal depression and anxiety?
All mums experience an intense emotional and physical transformation during pregnancy and the first year of a baby’s life, but for a significant proportion of us, this can lead on to full blown depression and anxiety and for a very small number, postnatal psychosis. For the purpose of this website, we will refer to perinatal depression and anxiety as PND, or postnatal depression.
The Baby Blues are a common expression for what happens to approximately 80% of all mums around the third to tenth day after birth. Because it is so common and temporary, we do not associate the Baby Blues as being a mental illness, but rather a natural state that is sure to pass once we settle into our new role as mothers. Symptoms include exhaustion, tearfulness, mood fluctuations, anxiety and irritability. Baby blues is thought to occur as a result of hormonal changes during pregnancy, the labour, breast feeding and lack of sleep.
Whilst we often hear about postnatal depression, antenatal depression is also common. Approximately 16% of women are reported to experience postnatal depression but many of these women report that their depression started during pregnancy. In fact, 40% of women who suffer from postnatal depression actually suffered depression and /or anxiety during their pregnancy. There are many reasons why depression might begin at this early stage, including but not limited to related health issues, lack of support, previous mental health issues, significant lifestyle changes and unrealistic expectations. The need for education about parenting which includes realistic expectations and future challenges are vital during the antenatal period, and would no doubt, reduce the incidence and severity of postnatal depression.
The most extreme perinatal mood disorder is commonly referred to as postnatal psychosis and this is said to affect around one in 1000 mothers and it usually becomes evident around two to three weeks following the birth. Although postnatal psychosis requires immediate hospital admission, the good news is that women usually fully recover with the appropriate treatment. Symptoms include severe mood disturbances (marked elation, depression or fluctuations from one to the other), disturbance in thought processes, bizarre thoughts, insomnia and inappropriate responses to the baby. The risk to life of both baby and mother is serious if the problem is not immediately recognised and treated.
Without doubt, most new parents find the transition into parenthood overwhelming and challenging but 16% of women and 10% of new fathers go on to develop postnatal depression (PND). Unfortunately this is not something we discuss in great detail prior to becoming parents and so our expectations and reality are poles apart and often quite disconnected. Often parents blame themselves, each other or their children for the way they feel and try very hard to ‘snap out of it’ but with little or no success. Many of us do not understand that postnatal depression is something we have very little control over and no amount of ‘trying’ or ‘denying’ will help once we are in the grip of it. It is vital that we learn to recognise the early signs and symptoms of PND so we can ask for help and encourage our loved ones to get the help they need as early as possible.