This month I have been confronted by the devastating impact of post natal depression, anxiety and psychosis which, for me as a clinician, has brought into laser focus the critical importance of perinatal mental health care.
In my own clinical training, in the perinatal literature and textbooks and on social media alike, there is so much emphasis placed on the birthing process, on early parenting transitions, breastfeeding skills and problem solving, as well as child rearing, and development. Whilst these aspects are vitally important, underpinning the lived experience of parenting is the mental health and emotional well-being of every mother, and also of every father. Good mental health is, in fact, the most fundamental basis for a healthy and positive parenting experience.
Postnatal Depression & Anxiety
Parenting is a job that requires you to be well in both body and mind. But we know from research that up to 1 in 5 women experience postnatal depression (PND) in Australia every year, and up to 1 in 10 men. The rates of postnatal anxiety (PNA) are similar and many parents experience both at the same time.
Postnatal anxiety and depression can be a frightening and isolating experience, especially when combined with caring for a newborn baby. Many parents have a difficult time disclosing their true thoughts and feelings. But if symptoms continue for more than 2 weeks, it’s time to seek help. PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety And Depression Australia) is an excellent resource. Panda.org.au informs us that the common signs and symptoms of PND & PNA are variable but may include:
- Panic attacks (a racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking or feeling physically ‘detached’ from your surroundings)
- Persistent, generalised worry, often focused on fears for the health or wellbeing of baby
- The development of obsessive or compulsive behaviours
- Increased sensitivity to noise or touch
- Changes in appetite; under or over eating
- Sleep problems unrelated to the baby’s needs
- Extreme lethargy: a feeling of being physically or emotionally overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of chores and looking after baby
- Memory problems or loss of concentration (‘brain fog’)
- Loss of confidence and lowered self esteem
- Constant sadness or crying
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Fear of being alone with baby
- Intrusive thoughts of harm to yourself or baby
- Irritability and/or anger
- Increased alcohol or drug use
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
How parents describe the experience of PND/PNA
Parents who have postnatal anxiety or depression describe some of the following experiences and thoughts:
- Anger or guilt about not having ‘normal’ feelings of maternal or paternal love
- Confusion or frustration about feeling low during a time when everyone is saying, “You must be so happy!”
- Being overwhelmed or confused by the advice or opinions of doctors, family or friends about how to manage their baby
- Wondering if their relationship with their partner will ever be the same
- Resenting physical changes to their bodies after childbirth and motherhood (“I was just a mum in some puked on dressing gown, day in day out”).
Postnatal (or postpartum) psychosis is a form of acute mental illness that usually occurs within the first four weeks after giving birth but may occur up to 12 weeks post birth.
Although relatively rare (1 or 2 in every 1,000 women), it is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that puts both mother and baby at risk.
It is important to recognise postnatal psychosis as soon as possible. Women with postnatal psychosis will almost always need admission to hospital for specialised psychiatric assessment and treatment. Beyond the immediate treatment period, a lot of support and care is required throughout the recovery process. The good news is women generally experience a full recovery with time and appropriate treatment.
The symptoms are generally sudden and very noticeable, and can include:
- Extreme sudden mood swings, from very high to very low
- Aggressive or even violent behaviour
- A high level of agitation
- Irrational or delusional thoughts or beliefs, which may include irrational beliefs or thoughts about the baby
- Hallucinations and changes in sense perception, such as smelling, hearing or seeing things that are not actually there
- Paranoid or strange beliefs about the baby that cannot be countered by rational discussion
- Grandiose or unrealistic beliefs about own abilities as a mother
- Unusual or inappropriate responses to the baby
- Thoughts and conversations may be disordered or nonsensical
Perinatal health encompasses the time from pregnancy up to 1 year after the birth of your baby. In last months edition we began by looking at the signs and symptoms of postnatal depression (PND) and anxiety (PNA) and how parents describe the experience of these conditions.
We know that as many as 1 in 5 mothers and 1 in 10 fathers experience PND and PNA in Australia every year, and many experience both at the same time. Postnatal anxiety and depression can be frightening, confusing and isolating. Many parents with PND/PNA have said that it was difficult to distinguish what were “normal” thoughts and feelings and what where not.
Furthermore, many parents do not want to disclose their true thoughts and feelings, which keeps them from receiving the treatment they might otherwise need. Stigma around mental health illness, shame and guilt about “being a bad parent” can often keep parents from talking to their loved ones about what they are going through.
And many who know know they could do with some help find it very difficult to raise their concerns with their health care professionals.
But the sooner parents get help, the sooner they can recover.
So where do you turn for help?
PANDA’s National Perinatal Mental Health Helpline is Australia’s only free, national helpline service for women, men and their families affected by perinatal mental illness.
The Helpline provides a safe and confidential space for any new or expecting parent struggling with the challenges of becoming a new parent.
Their highly trained and caring counsellors can help you work through your challenges by talking openly and honestly about your thoughts, feelings and experiences.
The Helpline is safe, secure and confidential. You can call from home, without needing to make an appointment or leave the house. Or you can call from your mobile while on the move.
As well as providing comprehensive support from skilled counsellors, the Helpline can also provide information about other services in your area. This includes local medical services, mental health services and family services. The Helpline can connect you with these services. Call PANDA’s Helpline on 1300 726 306
For online help from PANDA go to
Other recommend online resources include:
- MumMoodBooster is an evidence-based treatment for mums with mild to moderate perinatal depression
- Baby Steps is an online program to support transition to parenthood.
- Mind the Bump is a mindfulness app for use during pregnancy and early parenthood depression
- MindMum (for information see mumspace.com. au/when-you-need-extra-help)
- WWWT (What Were We Thinking — for information see whatwerewethinking.org.au).
If this article has raised any concerns for you, please go to panda.org.au and take the online mental health check, and call PANDA’s National Perinatal Mental Health Helpline1300 726 306 9am – 7.30pm Mon – Fri(AEST/AEDT) You can call for yourself, or someone you’re concerned about. No diagnosis is needed to call.
For further help, please speak to your doctor, lactation consultant or maternal child health nurse.
Photo Credit: Motrek Bali, via Unsplashed