Perinatal depression and anxiety can strike anyone: first-time mums, experienced mums, older mums, younger mums, and mothers from all socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.
For some women, it appears to be completely biological/hormonal on origin, for others a personal or family history of anxiety and depression, or social circumstances, but new research is homing in on risk factors.
It’s so hard to explain to people the power of the negative raging inside your head when you are experiencing postnatal depression. “I have one of the most supportive, caring, understanding husbands in the world but even trying to get him to understand was difficult. I would tell my divine husband about the horrible person in my head. I distinctly remember him saying to me, ‘honey you are the most positive person I know… you being down is still so far above anyone else.’” said Milly, one of the Gidget Foundation Angels.
“The easiest way I can describe it now is there are 2 voices in your head: the negative, mean one and the voice of reason. In any general situation, the negative voice might pipe up but the voice of reason will rationalise the situation and, I suppose, win! My negative voice during that pregnancy was so strong. I was frightened and did not like myself at all. I could hear both voices but the negative was the strongest. Safe medication, family support, GP support and a loving husband got me through it but every day felt like Groundhog Day and, every day that I woke up, I knew my battle was to keep the ‘voices’ at bay.”
Postpartum depression affects 1 in 5 women but new research is honing in on risk factors for the severity of the condition, whose symptoms can include feelings of hopelessness, fatigue and, in rare cases, thoughts of self-harm.
After surveying 507 women diagnosed with postpartum depression, researchers from Northwestern University identified four risk factors that may help doctors predict the seriousness of postpartum depression in mothers: education, the number of children a woman has, ability to function at work and at home, and depression severity at four to eight weeks postpartum.
Taking these factors into account can guide medical professionals in mental-health screenings for mothers and can inform potential treatment plans, researchers said. “This information can help us predict the severity of maternal depression, which can benefit the well-being of a mother early on,” Sheenhan Fisher, lead author of the study, told The Washington Post.
According to the researchers, postpartum depression can fall into three categories: gradual remission, partial recovery or chronic severe. “Women who partially improve and those with chronic depression are at a higher risk of relapse,” Fisher said.
Similar to postpartum depression, perinatal anxiety can cause feelings of irritability and ruminating thoughts to arise. However, mothers with anxiety may also experience physical discomfort such as nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath.
And sometimes, the two illnesses overlap. For instance, the latest research findings found that 64 percent of women with chronic postpartum depression also struggled with anxiety.
“I had struggled with anxiety throughout my adulthood so when selecting an OB, it was important to find a doctor who could help me manage my anxiety throughout the pregnancy to minimise any risk of my anxiety getting the better of me.” says Hayley.
“Once we got home the first couple of months were pretty good” says Hayley. But four months on, the downward spiral came fast. “I started to get obsessed about sleeping patterns and my daughter’s health, it was something I focused on constantly. I was so wound up that even when I got an opportunity to sleep I just couldn’t, which would cause me greater frustration.”
Hayley began to see a psychologist and treatment included prescribed medication. Over the following weeks her family and friends rallied around to make sure Hayley got the sleep and rest that she needed to rebuild herself. After a while, the weight began to lift.
Often offloading fears and frustrations is all that is needed. And a good listener can be a great sounding board, someone who might be able to help you work through how you’re really feeling. Sometimes emotional and practical support is all that is needed. However, if you are worried, there is treatment available for Perinatal Anxiety. Make an appointment with your early childhood nurse or GP as they will have the professional skills to support you or refer you to further help if necessary.
And what about the dads?
Postpartum depression doesn’t only affect women. According to research, new fathers can suffer the same symptoms — and if their partners are suffering from postpartum depression, as many as 25 percent of new fathers may also experience it. But research published in the Journal of Mental Health has found that signs of postpartum depression are often missed in men. Researchers in Britain had a group of volunteers read nearly identical descriptions of situations in which the subject suffered from postpartum depression, but one described a man and the other a woman. Ninety percent of the participants identified the woman as having postpartum depression, postnatal depression or depression; only 46.4 percent identified one of those causes for the man’s behaviour.
A professor not involved in the study told Reuters that because many people don’t realise that men can suffer from postnatal depression, “it is easier to minimise the symptoms, the severity … or the need to reach out and seek help.”
SO NOW WHAT?
It’s important to remember that postnatal anxiety and depression is temporary and treatable. So if you or your partner experience any symptoms for more than two weeks, it’s time to seek support. Otherwise things can get worse and it might take longer to recover.
Created by Dr. Julie Bindeman, this Postpartum Chart is a guide to track if you are impacted by emotional concerns postpartum. If you are concerned, please consult your GP.
If you or your partner are at immediate risk of harm call 000 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.