Maternal Mental Health can also be known as Perinatal Mental Health. This refers to mental health during pregnancy and up to one year after the baby is born. During this period new and expectant parents (mums, dads, partners) can experience issues with their mental health. These illnesses can be mild, moderate or severe, requiring different kinds of care or treatment.
Statistics show that up to 20% of women have mental health concerns during pregnancy and in the year following birth of their child. Maternal Mental Health affects 1 in 5 women during the perinatal timeframe (during pregnancy and first year postpartum). There are many different perinatal mental illnesses. Some of these are:
Perinatal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Depression - Antenatal Depression, Perinatal Depression and Postnatal Depression (PND)
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Stress-related conditions such as adjustment disorder.
Untreated perinatal mental health problems can have long-term impacts on the physical and mental health outcomes of mothers, babies, partners, and families.
Women experiencing Maternal Mental Health conditions might say:
“I don't understand why I’m not happy, I have wanted a baby for so long”
“I don’t know how to do this”
“Having a baby was a mistake”
“I’m not bonding with my baby”
“I’m afraid to be alone with my baby”
“I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep, even when my baby sleeps”
“I’m such a bad mother; my baby would be better off without me”
Slowly developing postnatal depression can take two forms. One type occurs when a patch of ‘baby blues’ which started soon after the baby’s birth, becomes worse and more distressing as time passes. The second type develops more slowly and is not noticeable until several weeks after the birth.
Many mums begin to feel depressed, increasingly despondent and hopeless soon after their baby is born. They may feel really miserable and sad for no particular reason and may find that they spend a large part of each day crying. Sometimes the mum may feel rejected by her partner, family, friends or even by the new baby; these feelings usually have no foundation. Pain and a general feeling of illness or constant tiredness are very common symptoms of depression and can become worse if the depression remains untreated.
The depressed mum may feel permanently tired and lethargic, unable to cope with household chores. She may give up washing or bathing, struggle to get herself dressed or forget to eat properly. Sometimes caring for the baby can just become too overwhelming, and caring for herself even moreso.
A depressed mum may feel extremely anxious about many different things and situations. She may be worried about her health, possibly having felt unwell since the birth of the baby. She may experience severe pain for which the doctor can find no satisfactory explanation. This pain is often in the head or neck, while other mums suffer backache, and/or chest pains which they fear are due to heart trouble. Some mums may have a number of minor medical complaints which cause undue distress.
Anxiety may take the form of unjustified worries about the health and wellbeing of other members of the family, especially the baby. The mum may feel a whole range of different feelings and emotions, all of which will be negative. Some anxious feelings and thoughts can be:
Dread or a sense of danger
A persistent feeling of being on edge, like something is about to go terribly wrong
Excessive worry about the baby’s health, development or safety
An overwhelming sense of burden, stress and concern about the ability to be a good parent
A persistent case of the jitters or a constant agitated feeling
Insomnia or trouble falling or staying asleep, even though she's exhausted
With severe anxiety, new mums may be worried that their thoughts sound crazy to others, and might be hesitant to share what they are thinking, as they don't want to be thought of as a "bad mother". These thoughts are constantly present which could then lead to the mum feeling too tense and anxious to leave her home.
A depressed mum may feel very confused by everyday situations and may experience feelings of panic. These feelings are unpredictable and very distressing. She is unable to ‘calm down’ and every effort should be made to avoid the situations in which she becomes distressed. However this can be really difficult when you are sleep deprived; the sleep deprivation that inevitably accompanies a new baby can be a huge factor in exacerbating postpartum panic attacks. The thoughts and feelings that you will have can feel so out of control and irrational, that panic will then start to manifest and grow, which can then present in having panic attacks.
Feelings of tension along with aches and pains are often associated with depression. The mum who experiences these feelings can find them extremely distressing. She is unable to relax, no matter how much she is encouraged to do so. She may feel as if she is about to explode when the tension is at its worst. This type of tension, when it is a symptom of depression, may not respond to treatment with sedatives.
Unwanted and Upsetting Thoughts
A mum who is suffering from depression commonly experiences unwanted and upsetting thoughts which may keep reoccurring. These may be about a person, a situation or about a certain activity. Some mums become very frightened and believe that they may harm a member of their family, especially the baby. These fears are common symptoms of depression and may be accompanied by feelings of guilt.
A depressed mum will often find that she cannot concentrate on books, television programs or even conversation. She may find that her memory is very poor and she will often feel very disorganised and disorientated. She may find herself sitting for long periods of time doing nothing, and unable to think about anything other than how awful she feels.
Often a depressed mum will have some form of sleeping difficulty. She may be awake until the early hours of the morning, or get no sleep at all. Some find that they sleep very fitfully and waken frequently; others may wake in the early hours of the morning with nightmares, and then cannot get back to sleep.
Many depressed mums dread going to bed as their symptoms trouble them more at night. Some mums find insomnia is one of the most distressing aspects of their illness.
Sometimes the sleep difficulties can cause the mum to feel quite desperate, especially when she may have just fallen asleep and then is woken by the baby. Usually when the depression is treated a more normal sleep pattern will be restored.
If any of the above has resonated with you…
If reading this article has struck a cord with you, or you recognise some of these behaviours from a loved one, then please know that you are not alone.
There is lots of help available for you, and talking therapy is just one of the options.
Counselling can offer you a safe space to share any thoughts or feelings you may have. You will never be judged, or thought of as a ‘bad mother’, but guided to overcoming these feelings of overwhelm and support in adjusting to life post-birth. It is dedicated time within your schedule, just for YOU.
Maternal Mental Health is just as important as the physical health following the birth of a baby. Recovery is possible and you do not need to go through it alone, happy times with your baby are just around the corner.