It’s no secret that many new mums suffer with their mental health after welcoming their newborn babies into the world. Indeed, during Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, you might be shocked to hear that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the baby blues affect up to 80% of women with symptoms including feeling irrational emotions, tearfulness, irritability and low feelings or anxiety.
The statistics vary as is often the case with reports on mental health and female issues. According to PANDAS (Pre and Post Natal Depression Advice Service), for example, one in every ten women will be depressed in pregnancy, and around one in every thirty will be depressed in pregnancy and the postnatal period. And the World Health Organisation estimates that about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression.
Whatever the true statistics, it’s clearly an issue that many women face during and after pregnancy.
Although mental health is spoken about more freely than it used to be, it’s only within the past twenty years that prenatal depression has been recognised as more than just ‘your hormones’.
The first step is learning to recognise you may be suffering, feeling confident enough to admit you are not “feeling yourself”, and then knowing where to get help. As mental health problems are now known to increase during pregnancy and the postnatal period, there have been great improvements in NHS maternity services. Every new mum is now asked to complete questionnaires after the birth of their child to monitor for anxiety and depression, and ensure they can quickly receive the treatment they need.
Many NHS Trusts now provide specialist support during pregnancy, alongside rapid access to specialist mental health assessment and treatment. You may find there are dedicated mental health services or midwifery teams, if you need them in your local area.
As a first port of call check in with your GP, midwife or health visitor to find out what support is available to you. The Maternal Mental Health Alliance also has a detailed map of health provisions across the UK.
There are several reasons why some women develop mental health problems during pregnancy. It may be a single cause or a combination of several factors. During pregnancy many hormonal and physical changes can temporarily change how you feel and affect your mental health.
What we do know is that if you have one or more of the following risk factors, your chances of developing a mental health problem increase:
Lack of social and family support, feelings of loneliness or feeling unsupported by those around you.
Chemical imbalances in the brain which you can’t control. These may need therapy or medication to help stabilise your mood more effectively. As with all medication there can be risks and side effects. Pregnant and breast feeding mothers should discuss concerns with their doctor to help weigh up those risks in relation to the benefits that they offer.
Having a previous history of one or more episodes of mental health problems or personality disorders. This includes issues with anxiety and depression.
If you have had a difficult or abusive childhood. This includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as being neglected as a child.
Lack of access to specialist mental health or related services that support mental health during your life when you have needed this input. Previous post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by one or more traumatic life events in the past.
Having one or more of the risk factors does not automatically mean you will develop a mental health condition in pregnancy, it just increases the chances of it happening to you.
Telling others how you feel is a positive step towards you or others recognising there could be a problem. If you’ve had mental health problems before becoming pregnant, you or others close to you may recognise some of the warning signs that you are becoming unwell. In fact, some women are often alerted by recognising triggers.
In these cases, it would be beneficial to talk to your midwife, GP or another healthcare professional that you trust, as soon as you recognise any signs as this will enable your maternity team to help you access support networks that can help.
If you haven’t previously had any mental health issues, the signs you are becoming unwell might be confusing or you may try to ignore them. Try to listen to your mind and body if you think they are trying to tell you something.
Exercise has been proven to help relieve stress, tension and improve your mental health. It can be difficult to self-motivate yourself during pregnancy or when you have a new baby if you’re feeling tired. Ask a friend to join you or look for pregnancy exercise groups in your local area. Try to choose an exercise or activity that you enjoy doing so you are more likely to stick with it.
Be open and don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Tell friends and family that you trust how you are feeling.
Seek help sooner rather than later. Your midwife or GP will have plenty of advice and will be able to signpost you towards accessing the relevant resources to help you.
And lastly, pregnancy can be a trigger for pre-existing mental health issues to resurface or for mental health issues to develop for the first time. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so be open and talk to people who can help.
Lesley Gilchrist is a practising midwife and founder of My Expert Midwife