Everything You Need To Know About Perinatal Depression And Anxiety

In recognition of Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week, Women’s Health has spoken to a Clinical Psychologist from the Gidget Foundation – which provides support services for families suffering emotional distress during pregnancy and early parenting – about everything you need to know about the condition that affects one in six Aussie mums. 

What is perinatal depression?

If you experience depression and/or anxiety during the period from conception until your baby is one year old, it is described as perinatal depression and anxiety.

How common is it?

Perinatal depression and anxiety affects 1 in 6 mothers and 1 in 10 fathers, equalling almost 100,000 parents in Australia each year.

What are the symptoms?

“The most common things are low mood, mood fluctuations, experiencing no joy in life, excessive worry about the baby’s health to a point where it is hard to settle,” Chris Barnes, a psychologist from the Gidget Foundation told Women’s Health.

“Other things include feeling overwhelmed, appetite and sleep disturbances, sometimes physical symptoms like feeling sick in the stomach, sweaty palms, even panic attacks. The more serious symptoms can include thoughts about harming the baby or themselves.”

According to the Gidget foundation, other symptoms can include:

  • Unable to concentrate, make decisions or get things done
  • Feeling numb, hopeless and remote from family and friends
  • Feeling out of control, or ‘crazy’, even hyperactive
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or repetitive thoughts
  • Feeling trapped or in a dark hole or tunnel with no escape
  • Feelings of grief, loss, anger, tearfulness
  • Feeling lethargic or hyperactive

“For it to be a diagnosable condition, the symptoms need to go on for at least two weeks,” Chris says. 

How can you differentiate perinatal depression from the ‘baby blues’?

While many women experience ‘baby blues’ around three to ten days after giving birth due to changes in hormone levels, ongoing symptoms can be a sign of something more serious. 

“I think it is hard to differentiate at first – especially if it is your first baby and that is why a lot of women suffer in silence,” Chris says. “They think that it is normal to feel like this, and they are too embarrassed or there’s a stigma attached to having a clinical diagnosis. Often women keep quiet so you sort of hope that someone will detect it, whether it be a partner or a GP. It is very difficult as sometimes people just feel off and they don’t feel themselves, and some people will hopefully talk to someone like their partner or a mother’s group, their mum or a friend. And it’s often through that process, when they start talking, that can be the first, and the hardest step, to recovery.”

Are some women more likely to suffer than others?

If you have a history of depression, anxiety, or trauma, you are more likely to develop perinatal depression, Chris says. If you suffered it in your first pregnancy, there is also a higher chance that you will experience it in subsequent pregnancies. Other risk factors include:

  • Having a baby with health problems or special needs
  • Experiencing difficulty with breastfeeding
  • Having problems in your relationship
  • Having a weak support system
  • Experiencing financial problems

What are the treatment options for perinatal depression?

Have a conversation with your GP, obstetrician, gynaecologist, or perinatal specialist, who will refer you to a psychologist. 

“Through seeking professional you’ll learn things such as relaxation strategies, you’ll learn about perinatal depression and anxiety and what it does and how it works, and the things you can do to make it better like meditation, mindfulness, fish oil during the day, magnesium at night, getting time out, making sure that you get a break sometimes and enlisting help. It takes a village, you get friends, family, if you don’t have any of that, outsource it. Do daily exercise, which is really important to increase endorphins the natural feel good endorphins we have in our body. 

“Medication is often used if the talking therapies are not enough, especially if someone has a history with depression. Antidepressants that are considered safe during pregnancy and after birth are also used for anxiety. It is a good thing to consider if it works for that person, what suits that person and their values, you target the treatment around that.”

Chris also says that where appropriate, it’s crucial to involve partners. 

“They are often suffering as well, whether they are feeling distant or withdrawing, feeling lonely. It can impact on the whole family, there should be a focus on the emotional well being of the whole unit, so we try and treat all of that if we can.”

What can you do to support someone who might be suffering?

“Just to ask the question, ‘are you are okay’,” Chris says. “Listen for anything that doesn’t sound quite right in that person, show kindness and compassion, good listening, and help them seek help. Be open to asking them questions and listen well, be non-judgemental and get them professional help, that is the best solution.”

November 12 to 18 is Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week. Gidget Foundation Australia is urging new and expectant parents to start a conversation about perinatal anxiety and depression in an effort to break the stigma surrounding the condition that affects 100,000 Australians each year. For support and information you can call 1300 851 758 or visit their website. 

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