The journey through pregnancy and early motherhood is often thought of as a magical time in a woman’s life, but a lack of attention to maternal mental health can make it become the darkest and most isolating. This can result in suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (“PMADs”), which include postpartum depression, anxiety, panic, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and psychosis. Sadly, new mothers often feel shame about their negative feelings or are unable to identify that they are struggling and need treatment, without which these disorders can pose a great risk to the mother and the baby itself.
It is the unhealthy focus on the baby that makes these disorders especially worrisome. Women who experienced these disorders prior to pregnancy are at greater risk to continue to experience them during and after pregnancy. Women in higher stress situations such as military families, families of multiples, and single mothers are at an especially high risk. Other stressors that could trigger a mood disorder include a traumatic birth or having a baby in the NICU.
Partners and loved ones are often confused about why the new mother is behaving the way she is or not taking an interest in the baby. They often dismiss new mothers who report feeling overwhelmed, unable to sleep, having a poor appetite, and “not feeling like themselves” as simply having the “baby blues.” However, this is a gross misunderstanding of the situation and unfair to the mother. Baby blues typically only last up to two weeks postpartum as the new family adjusts to initial exhaustion, lack of sleep and overall adjustment, with symptoms decreasing after only two weeks.
Fortunately, there has been an increase in focus on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders among the medical community that has given mothers at risk for depression, anxiety and other mood disorders during and after pregnancy opportunities to seek help. Any provider that is in contact with pregnant and postpartum women is support for both the mother and the baby, including OB/GYN’s, pediatricians, lactation consultants, midwives/doulas, and therapists.
Advocates suggest that frequent screenings during pregnancy up until a year postpartum could provide early intervention and support to the mothers and their families. Additionally, providing education about PMADs to the family could increase awareness of symptoms and provide support about the best course of treatment. Once diagnosed, it is recommended that the mother receive a medical evaluation by a doctor as well as a therapist trained in PMADs. It is also recommended that the mother take advantage of as much support as possible, including support groups.
There are many great resources available to women and their families to help increase education and awareness and to provide support and encouragement. If you feel that you or a loved one is experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, then ask for help. It may be one of the most courageous decisions you make for yourself and your baby.