Postnatal depression is the term used to describe a depressive episode parents can experience following the birth of a child (it affects both the mother who gave birth to the child, and their partner). For the birth mother, signs they have postnatal depression are normally present after a month or so of birth. For the partner, and men in particular, postnatal depression symptoms can show up to a year following the birth.
Many mothers experience the baby blues, commonly during the first couple of weeks following the birth. The baby blues are where the mum may feel emotional, teary, exhausted and wondering what on earth life is going to be like now she has a child. It makes sense, after all having a baby is not only physically exhausting but overwhelming on so many fronts and that teamed with hormones playing havoc can lead to a pretty emotional time.
Baby blues tend to fluctuate throughout the day and often disappear within a couple of weeks of the birth. Post natal depression, on the other hand, is a serious illness that can have long term implications for both mother and baby. (Read more here: ‘Raising awareness of perinatal depression’.)
One obvious sign of postnatal depression is experiencing a prolonged and sustained lowness of mood, that permeates the day. It may feel to some like they are walking along in a black cloud, their lowness of mood creates almost a wall around them which can lead to the mum feeling like they are somehow separated from others. This kind of low mood can be accompanied with crying or wanting to cry, but not always – sometimes people with depression feel ‘catatonic’ – that is so withdrawn they can’t even cry.
If your first waking thought is ‘how am I going to do this’, if the thought of getting showered or dressed feels overwhelming and if you find yourself walking around the house not even sure where to start you may be experiencing some of the symptoms of postnatal depression. Feeling overwhelmed by ‘normal’ daily tasks, including looking after yourself and your baby is a sign you may have postnatal depression.
Every new parent feels exhausted. Fact. But for those with postnatal depression the exhaustion lasts a lot longer than the initial couple of sleep deprived weeks, before things start settling and you manage to get a bit of sleep. The exhaustion experienced by someone with depression has been described as ‘swimming upstream every moment you are awake’; no matter how much rest, caffeine or sleep you get, your still feel completely drained. This can be really hard for those around you to understand – they will naturally think you are tired because of the baby and whilst tiredness is part and parcel of having a new child, utter exhaustion is sign you might have postnatal depression.
One sign of depression that most people will share is a constant stream of worrying about things around them. Again, it’s common for new mums to worry a lot, is the baby okay, are they eating enough, sleeping too much – this is all part of tuning into your baby and learning to be a mum. However, for those with postnatal depression, worries can be constant, can wake you in the middle of the night in a blind panic, cause your heart to beat fast or make you feel like you are having a panic attack.
Guilt is another common feeling for women with postnatal depression – guilt that they are not doing a good enough job, guilt that they have a role to play in things out of their control (their husbands appraisal at work, a family bust up, even natural disasters can all feel like their responsibility). This might seem crazy to those around the woman, but it is really important to note that these feelings, however ungrounded they might be, feel completely real to the person involved and as such need to be taken seriously.
Having a child is a stressful time for most couples – lack of sleep, feeling overwhelmed and simply not knowing what to do can lead to arguments. However, for those with postnatal depression this can often become worse. Postnatal depression can last for months if not treated. It can put a huge amount of pressure on a couple to live with someone who is struggling every day, arguments are common place and it can create a divide that can seem hard to fix. Put into the mix the needs of a third person – the baby – and it is no wonder that this time can be incredibly stressful for new parents.
Thankfully, postnatal depression can be successfully treated. Medication and talking therapies couple counselling and support from friends and family can make all the difference. The first step is in seeking help. There is no shame in going to your health visitor, midwife, GP or other mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, and talking about what is going on. Whilst you might be fearful of being judged as a bad mother, postnatal depression is recognised as being a serious illness and therefore one that people will take seriously.
If you would like to talk to someone about how Clinical Partners can help you or your loved one with postnatal depression please call 0203 326 9160.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping adults, children and families across the UK find the help they need.