Becoming a parent is a major event in a person’s life, and it can often be filled with many different emotions. You may be excited, but at the same time, worry if you will be able to cope. For many women, the dominant emotions are positive ones, but some may feel unhappiness, loneliness and anxiety, and they may end up so severe that they are clinically diagnosed as (or at least could be diagnosed as) mental illness. In fact, 1 in 7 women will experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy. This can be amplified if a woman has a history of mental illness before becoming pregnant. Fortunately, most cases of antenatal depression (depression during pregnancy) disappear with the birth of the baby, but some mothers go on to suffer with postnatal depression. It is important that both these types of depression get treated ASAP, because they can have a profound effect on the child. Anxiety in pregnancy can reduce blood flow to the fetus and affect birthweight and future hypertension, and it can cause the child to experience cognitive delay and make them prone to depression themselves as an adult.
Symptoms of Antenatal depression
Antenatal depression can occur at any time during the pregnancy. It can come out of nowhere, or the symptoms may gradually increase over a period of weeks.
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Losing interest in doing things you would normally enjoy
- Feeling fatigued excessively
- Feeling that you are unable, or will be unable, to cope
- Loss of confidence
- Suicidal thoughts
- Uncertainty regarding the pregnancy
One of the biggest issues of the lot is that females feel pressured to be happy when pregnant. They feel that being unhappy about the pregnancy means they are awful people and it is wrong. This is incorrect and only fueling the anxiety. This idea that they are ‘bad’ because of it is most likely what is sustaining the problem. This is similar to how people with OCD feel some thoughts are ‘bad’, and they are only perpetuated as a result of trying to get rid of them.
The ‘baby blues’ and postnatal depression
It’s important not to confuse postnatal depression with the ‘baby blues’, which is a period of low mood and anxiety for a few days after birth. The majority of mothers experience this, and it is normal. Cases of postnatal depression, however, will appear up to 3 months after birth, and will be more severe in symptoms. A smaller majority experience this (10-15%), but it’s important to seek help if you suspect you may have it. Symptoms are very similar to antenatal depression, and other mental health issues can occur alongside it. OCD and issues with eating may occur as well. Important to note is that another form of postnatal mental illness, puerperal psychosis, is a severe form of mental illness which is rare. The symptoms occur within a week after birth and include paranoia, hallucinations and other behaviours. This should be considered an emergency and immediate help should be requested.
Treatment for these types of depression has to be tailored to the individual and approached carefully. This is especially the case for antenatal depression. Doctors have to find the antidepressants with the greatest evidence of safety so that no harm is done to the mother and fetus. Doses will often be minimal as well. Monotherapy is usually used in preference to drug combinations where possible. If you suspect you have either of these types of depression, seek help as soon as you can. It is not only you who will be affected.