Having a baby and becoming a parent is one of the most exciting and life-changing things you can do, but sometimes lack of sleep combined with all these new challenges make it an overwhelming time in your life. Some people experience what is called the 'baby blues' in the two weeks after birth, but if this continues – or indeed starts during pregnancy – it’s time to seek help.
Yet often people either don’t recognise their symptoms, or are too ashamed to talk about their feelings and find the help they need.
We spoke to Terri Smith, CEO of Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia about overcoming the stigma, and how friends and families can support their loved ones.
Listen to Terri on Kinderling Conversation:
1. It’s really common
According to PANDA, one in 10 women and one in 20 men experience depression during pregnancy, and more than one in seven new mums and up to one in 10 new dads experience postnatal depression. These figures show just how common it is, and whether it’s mild or severe, it’s always worth seeking help.
2. Making the transition is a challenge
Logistical life changes are an additional challenge to the demands of pregnancy and giving birth. The transition to motherhood is described by many new mums as 'culture shock'.
“Most women who are having a baby in this century have held down a job, usually a full-time job, and they are competent and capable. So it’s quite challenging to leave that role and pick up a new role with literally no training and quite an unpredictable baby in front of them,” says Terri.
3. Planning: expectations vs reality
We’re constantly faced with the difference between our expectations of what we want to happen, and reality. For example, there’s an expectation that during pregnancy women 'glow', but some women are very sick during this time. You might be expected to be very excited, but actually you’re very anxious about what will happen next. Now that you’ve conceived, you might find that you and your partner have very different ideas about raising a child.
You can plan for every detail of the birth, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Maybe you really want to breastfeed, but then you find that you physically can’t. So it’s all about adjusting your expectations as you also adjust to life with a new baby.
4. Risk factors
People are more likely to experience perinatal depression and anxiety if they, or a family member, have had a previous history of mental illness, depression or anxiety. This could be early childhood trauma or abuse, stress and anxiety during high school or university exams, or previous experiences of grief and loss such as a miscarriage, termination or a stillbirth.
5. Recognise the symptoms
Symptoms of anxiety and depression can include panic attacks, heart palpitations, excessive worrying, obsessive behaviours, abrupt mood swings, constant sadness or crying, and extreme lethargy. It can also include an inability to sleep when your baby is sleeping because you’re worrying, or feeling overwhelmed by emotions.
6. Friends and family can help
It’s so important to be able to have direct conversations about emotional health, just like physical health. “If someone had just brought a new baby into the world and they broke their arm, no-one would hesitate to talk about that, but we still shy away from talking about mental health,” says Terri.
She adds that it’s important to “open up the conversation in a way that isn’t blaming anyone, and is encouraging them to think about whether they might need help.” Pointing out how common the experience of depression and anxiety is among new mums and dads helps to normalise it.
7. Recovery is possible
There are a range of different treatment and coping strategies like medication and talking therapies, as well as breathing and mindfulness techniques.
“Many people won’t need medication,” says Terri, “but sometimes it can be necessary to give you the best chance of getting back to an equilibrium, to be the best mum or dad you can be.”
Check out PANDA’s website for stories of recovery or contact their national helpline on 1300 726 306 if you’d like to speak to someone who can help.
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