Postpartum Mental Health: Raising Awareness

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September 30, 2014

It’s supposed to be this amazing time in your life – you’re a MOM!.  A new baby!  Maybe it was one that was planned, maybe not. Maybe it’s something you’ve worked very hard for – fertility treatment, acupuncture, herbs, charting, temperature taking, sex on demand and the list goes on. Or maybe this pregnancy was an “oops!” Regardless, it seems that there is a lot of pressure on new moms these days to be “the perfect mother,” when really you just need to be “good enough.”

Then there is the romanticized notion of motherhood – long, loving gazes between you and your newborn, wanting to feel selfless all the time, etc. Yes, there are parts of motherhood that are that way! However, there are plenty of aspects to it that are not nearly so romantic or glamorous. The inability to remember whether you’ve brushed your teeth or showered on any given day, what day it is and if it’s morning or evening becomes your new reality.

During these early days of being a mom, when it is difficult to keep track of anything, you can start feeling extremely overwhelmed. Who wouldn’t? It is a daunting and overwhelming task, having total responsibility for another person! There have been many cases in the news lately about mothers who harm their children and there are people striving for answers to this idea of matricide.

What are the “baby blues” versus postpartum depression versus postpartum psychosis? There are factors that make postpartum depression distinctly different from the “baby blues.” FIrst off, as a mental health professional, let me say that if at any time you feel like you, a friend or a patient is in emotional distress, it is imperative to involve a professional in the situation. You may be helping to prevent a potentially catastrophic event.

Who is at risk for developing post-partum depression?

— Women who have a family history of depression and anxiety

— Women who experience stressful life events during this time

— Women who are socially isolated

— Women who have anxiety and/or negative feelings about the pregnancy

— Women who were depressed during the pregnancy.

Many women experience “baby blues” following the birth of a child. This is characterized by having some moodiness, feeling sad, anxious or overwhelmed. Some women may have frequent crying episodes. Some women lose their appetite and have trouble sleeping. Many of these symptoms can be attributed to the rapid decrease of hormones upon delivering the baby. Hormones are active in the brain and are essential in regulating neurochemistry. Any fluctuations can have an impact. These hormones affect mood and the ability to regulate mood. Because of this rapid fluctuation of hormones, “baby blues” tend to stick around for up to two weeks after delivery and abate on their own. Some women have symptoms that persist and do not get better with time. They should seek treatment by a mental health professional. Additionally, if at any time, a woman has thoughts of hurting the baby or herself, she should seek immediate psychiatric attention. If she does not have interest in the baby – caring for the baby, responding to the baby, etc, she should also seek immediate psychiatric care.

Postpartum psychosis is the most severe of the postpartum illnesses. This is the condition that tends to get much media attention as it is one of the most lethal of the postpartum illnesses. Women who are suffering with postpartum psychosis are at a higher risk of harming their children while in active psychosis. This is characterized by:

— seeing things that are not there

— responding to internal stimuli (e.g. voices) that are not there

— having rapid mood swings

— trying to harm the baby.

Postpartum psychosis is very rare, occurring 1 out of 1000 live births. However, women who have a history of a mental health issue called schizoaffective disorder are at a higher risk to have postpartum psychosis. Beyond postpartum depression and psychosis, there is an entire spectrum of mental health issues directly linked to a woman’s state of mind, and brain chemistry in the postpartum time of life, including postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder, postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder, and postpartum anxiety disorder.

The postpartum period of life is one that is filled with hope and dreams. However, it can also be a time filled with anxiety and stress. Even if you are struggling with symptoms which don’t seem that “serious,” it is worth it to talk to a mental health professional. Please be vigilant if you are a new mom, a friend or a practitioner. Look for warning signs – mood lability, erratic behavior, extremes in moods, and retreat from social outlets. If you are worried about yourself or someone else, please seek help! Montgomery County Crisis Center 240-777-4000.