Postpartum depression, like many other mental illnesses, carries with it a stigma. With this stigma there is shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, and anger. As with all mental illnesses, if left untreated the effects can last for a longer period of time, worsen, and become a permanent part of your daily life.
Over the last few years there has been more talk about postpartum depression. The media has brought it in to the light to try and ease the stigma. However until we can change the way society perceives mental health, there will always be those who suffer in silence. I know this. I am one of them.
Approximately 50% to 75% of all new mothers will suffer from something called “Baby Blues”. This is a temporary and often mild feeling of fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, crying either out of sadness or frustration and changes to your sleeping and eating patterns. Given the fact that a newborn has the highest demands, requires immediate attention and has no concept of day or night it is easy to see how the vast majority of new mothers reported feeling the Baby Blues. Most new mothers recover once they get into the swing of life with a new baby. Having a child is a big change and specifically for first time mothers, there are some significant lifestyle changes that will need to be made that can take some getting used to.
Approximately 15% of mothers have reported struggling with Postpartum Depression. It is worth noting that these are only reported cases. Many mothers either don’t recognize the symptoms, or are ashamed to report what they are feeling. I admittedly, am an unreported case. I know firsthand what it is like to carry with you this secret, all the while acting seemingly normal to those around you.
In recent years, new categories have been added to the postpartum umbrella diagnosis, including postpartum anxiety, postpartum post traumatic stress disorder, postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder and postpartum psychosis. Someone who is struggling with postpartum depression can also be dealing with one or more of these diagnoses at the same time.
Postpartum anxiety affects approximately 10% of postpartum women and can be recognized by constant worry and the overwhelming sense of doom. You will often have racing thoughts that you are not able to control, most of which will be negative. You may assume the worse is going to happen without having any real reason to feel that way. You may find it is difficult to focus, sleep and eat. Often, the postpartum woman may be afraid of being left alone with the baby.
Postpartum post traumatic stress disorder affected 1%-6% of women and will often occur after birth following an unplanned or emergency cesarean, a baby who is sick or in the NICU, a difficult labor, a lack of support during labor, or other medical emergencies during delivery. Those who suffer postpartum post traumatic stress disorder will often have nightmares about the scenario or will avoid anyone and anything that reminds them of it. Often, the women will become overprotective of the baby.
Postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder affects 3%-5% of postpartum women. This can be recognized by repeating the same task over and over again in an attempt to cope with anxiety or depression which can include making lists, compulsive cleaning, checking and rechecking actions that you or others have already performed or repeatedly having mental images of yourself or the baby that can be disturbing. Often, the woman will be afraid of being left alone with the baby.
Postpartum psychosis is the most severe form of postpartum depression. It affects approximately 1 in every 1000 pregnancies. The onset is very sudden and usually occurs 2-3 weeks after birth. The symptoms are bizarre and uncharacteristic behavior, suicidal thoughts, delusions and hallucinations, thoughts of hurting the baby, and uncharacteristic hyperactivity.
Postpartum psychosis is considered to be a medical emergency. The person should be seen and treated immediately.
Symptoms of postpartum depression will usually appear shortly after birth. Sometime, mothers begin seeing the signs 3-6 months after birth. When a woman gives birth, her hormones take a sharp dive. This is the cause for the sudden changes in mood, the chronic feeling of fatigue and depression. That, in combination with a lack of sleep, being overwhelmed and feeling anxious about your parenting skills creates the perfect storm for feeling inadequate and depressed.
Mothers who suffer from postpartum depression are often confused about what is happening to them. They are uninformed about postpartum depression. In my case, I remember thinking to myself, “I should be happy. I must be a terrible person.” It is hard to imagine yourself finally holding your child after countless hours spent dreaming about this moment and feeling nothing but self-pity and remorse. But it is real and if left untreated it could escalate to something more severe.
Postpartum depression is not to be confused with Baby Blues. The feeling of depression and anxiety can last for months and even up to one year. Some mother report suffering from severe postpartum depression even 2 years after birth. This can happen if the problem is never addressed or treated. There is however, the possibility that childbirth only amplifies underlying symptoms that have been ignored for some time before, such as anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder.
I myself am no stranger to mental health, which is why I can see it from multiple perspectives. To the new mother who doesn’t feel normal, I have been there. To the woman who is toying with the idea of walking away from it all, I have been there. To the woman quietly sobbing in a dark nursery watching the sun rise and feeling the cold air brush against your ankles, I have been there. You are not alone in this. Reach out for help and understand that it is not you that is the problem. You are not broken. There is a solution. There is no shame in asking for help.