Having a baby is one of the most joyful times in a woman’s life. Or so they say. But what happens when it is not?
Postpartum depression and anxiety can rob new mothers of the joy they expected to feel at the arrival of their child. According to the American Psychological Association, up to one in seven women will experience some degree of mental illness during or after pregnancy, however a recently completed mental health needs assessment conducted in Alachua County found an alarmingly high one in three women at risk. Unfortunately, many women are unprepared for this reality and do not seek the help they need.
The signs of postpartum depression and anxiety can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the normal aspects of new motherhood, and as a result, are often explained away instead of treated. You feel lethargic, but are told it is natural to be tired when you are up at all hours with a newborn. You feel overly emotional, but everyone says it is just your hormones from birth and possibly breastfeeding. According to Lauren DePaola, LCSW and owner/therapist at Postpartum Wellness and Family Counseling, the symptoms of adjusting to parenthood should go away in a maximum of 12 days. If after this point you are still experiencing excessive worry, powerful mood swings, lethargy, or any of the many other symptoms of postpartum mental illness, you should speak to a doctor.
Hormonal changes are a risk factor for developing postpartum mental illness, as are the stresses of dealing with a newborn, especially if you have been blessed with one who is particularly challenging or has special needs. If your family has additional stressors such as financial trouble, this can increase your risk, as can a lack of social support. A personal or family history of mental illness also increases the likelihood that you will experience it during or after pregnancy, however women with no prior history are not exempt.
Symptoms of perinatal or postpartum mental illness may not always present as you might expect. Depression can actually involve fits of rage. Anxiety can manifest as intrusive thoughts of unlikely harm coming to your baby or worse, thoughts of you causing harm to your baby (please understand that these thoughts are not indicative of your actual intentions). Symptoms range from mild to severe with regard to their impact on daily life, and they can affect both moms AND dads. They also may not present immediately after giving birth, but can creep up weeks or even months later.
My personal experience with postpartum mental illness began with mild symptoms that I rationalized as being normal. I worried about things that never would have entered my mind prior to becoming a mother. There were the typical scenarios, such as going near water and worrying about my son drowning or being on a second story and worrying about him falling. But I also worried about bizarre things like him falling forward in the bathtub and having the switch that operated the drain stab through the soft spot in his head. It was not until well past his first birthday that I started to question whether the way I was feeling was really normal. I struggled to get out of bed every day and would sometimes find myself crying for no discernible reason. I also started having strange hallucinations when I would first wake from a sleep cycle; I was seeing spiders dangling from the ceiling in front of me and once even a giant one lunging toward me. When my mom pointed out how unlike my usual upbeat, energetic self I was, I knew it was time to see a doctor. I started taking a low dose of medication and have since noticed significant improvements to my mental well-being and as a result, my parenting.
Untreated mental illness can have devastating effects on families. If you or someone you love seems to be struggling with becoming a parent or does not seem like themselves, there are resources to get help. If you are unsure where to begin, you can always talk with your primary care provider or your OBGYN and they can refer you to a mental health professional. You can also visit Acpmhc.com or Flmomsmatter.org for support and guidance.