By: Lisa Edwards, Ph.D., Dept. of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology, Marquette University
Ask any parent and they will tell you that the changes that come with having a baby are almost indescribable. There are hormonal fluctuations and lack of sleep, as well as lifestyle changes in daily activities and relationship with one’s partner. There are challenges and stressors, as well as joys, love, and opportunities for growth that are unimaginable. Having a baby represents embarking on a new journey through uncharted territory that parents have to learn to navigate, and it can be tough. About one in seven mothers will struggle with this transition and develop a mental health concern such as depression or anxiety. While this can be scary, it is important to know that perinatal mental health concerns can be treated and mothers should get the support they need in order to address them.
There are many perinatal mental health concerns such as postpartum anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, but postpartum depression is the most common. It is not clear why mothers experience postpartum depression during pregnancy and after the baby is born, but theories generally point to biological and environmental influences, or a combination of both. Biological theories don’t explain all cases, however, as adoptive parents can also develop postpartum depression. Some mothers may be at particular risk for developing postpartum depression, such as those who had depression before or when they became pregnant, those with babies with special needs, mothers who are low income, mothers with unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, and those experiencing stress or a lack of social support.
Mothers with postpartum depression can show many different symptoms, some of which develop during pregnancy and others which may develop a week, or even several months after baby arrives. It’s important to note that the “baby blues” (e.g., feeling anxious, sad or overwhelmed, crying and having mood swings) aren’t considered a perinatal mental health concern, since these are very common in women and usually only last a few days to a week or so. In contrast, mothers with postpartum depression have symptoms that are more severe and last longer, usually over 2 weeks. Some of the common symptoms mothers report are:
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Feeling sad, hopeless, or empty
- Feeling overwhelmed or anxious
- Loss of enjoyment in activities
- Lack of concentration or focus
- Not feeling bonded to baby
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Eating too little or too much
Because our society emphasizes that motherhood is supposed to be such a joyful time and there is general stigma about disclosing mental health concerns, mothers often feel scared and guilty that they have any negative feelings since becoming pregnant or having their baby. They may feel alone, confused, and unsure of what to do to start feeling better.
A first step for a mother who is experiencing a mental health concern is to talk with her doctor/nurse/midwife or child’s pediatrician. Hopefully they will be able to provide some referrals in their area.
If a partner or loved one is concerned about how a mother is doing, they can talk to her about it. Providing the opening to discuss what she may be feeling and offering to help her connect with a professional can be immensely helpful.
If a medical professional is not able to provide appropriate referrals or if a mother is not comfortable speaking with her or him, anyone can contact the English or Spanish Warmline for Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773. Volunteers on this warmline can answer questions and will help mothers and families find mental health resources in their area.
For more information about mental health during pregnancy and postpartum, check out these useful websites:
- Postpartum Support International – http://www.postpartum.net/
- Postpartum Progress – http://www.postpartumprogress.com/
How have you adjusted to being pregnant or being a new mom, or how have you supported a friend who might need extra help?
Lisa Edwards, PhD is a mother and professor of counseling psychology at Marquette University. She is a volunteer on the Spanish Warmline for Postpartum Support International and created hopefulmama.com to offer strategies to help mothers cultivate their strengths. To read more from Lisa you can follow her blog or find her on Facebook and Twitter. On her Pinterest boards you’ll find many resources about perinatal mental health, positive psychology, and parenting.