It can be hard to recognise depression when in the thick of it. And for most new parents, exhaustion and sleep deprivation add to the challenges of describing exactly what they’re going through. This makes it hard to get the right type of help and support. Many new mums say they just want to keep going, hoping that with time, they’ll start to feel better.
Although it can be hard to take the first steps towards getting help, this is often the start.
As many as one in five mothers will experience postnatal depression, with anxiety just as common. Knowing the statistics is one thing, accepting that we are all at risk is another. Some women view depression as a sign of weakness, or with a sense of shame. Others are frightened by the concept of having an emotional illness which they don’t understand and which they believe, happens to ‘other people’ or which they interpret as meaning they’re a ‘bad mother’. The reality is that depression (and anxiety) can be treated very effectively.
Spend some time thinking about what’s in it for your partner to say they’re concerned. If you have a good relationship and they’ve always been kind and supportive, then it’s unlikely that what their saying is meant to be hurtful.
They know you and how you usually are. Sometimes depression can be so all encompassing that it’s almost impossible to appreciate how much it’s affected everyday life. Having someone on the ‘outside’ looking in, rather than out, can make a big difference.
They may be genuinely concerned about you, how you’re caring for yourself and perhaps the baby. They may be picking up on things which would otherwise be missed.
Perhaps they need support as well. If you are depressed, they’re more at risk of becoming depressed themselves. Consider if their comments may be a sign that they need help too.
They may sense you’ve built a wall around yourself which they can’t get over or around. Perhaps they’re worried about your relationship or that you’re withdrawing from them and the rest of your networks.
Perhaps they’re struggling to manage their own emotions and keep things as stable for you as possible. Doing this over a long period of time can be exhausting; maybe they’re also trying to say they can’t keep going unless you both get some support.
Symptoms of depression can be mild or more severe. Some days you may feel fine and on other days, as if everything is getting on top of you. It’s also common to experience mood swings at different times of the day (and night).
1. Your partner or people who are close to you are worried about you. They may say things like “you just don’t seem to be yourself”, are you okay? “You seem depressed/worried/anxious”.
2. You have a low mood, feel ‘flat’ and don’t have the energy to enjoy things like you used to.
3. You may have feelings like you’re trapped in a dark hole and can’t escape.
4. Unable to sleep and your mind is racing, even when you have a chance to rest and sleep.
5. Feeling confused and unable to make decisions.
6. You’re not enjoying your life or your baby.
7. Not feeling a sense of emotional attachment to the baby. This can be counterbalanced by an (irrational) fear of having the baby taken away, or you’re not being fit to care for the baby. These fears can actually stop some mothers to seek help and support.
8. Having thoughts of harm to yourself or your baby.
9. You’re not functioning in your usual way. You feel overwhelmed by what you need to do and there are changes in how you organise your day.
10. You may have physical symptoms like a racing heart, weight loss or gain, headaches, feel lethargic. Some women experience panic attacks, perhaps for the first time.
It’s useful not to view comments from others as criticism or meaning you’re not coping. Most people are kind and want to be supportive. Even if they don’t use the perfect words to check if you’re okay, look behind this for their meaning e.g., they care enough about you to ask how you are.
● See your GP, Child Health Nurse, Obstetrician or Midwife. They have access to screening tools for depression and anxiety which will help to measure your individual risk. It often helps to make a longer appointment so there’s more chance for talking.
● Make a note of your symptoms to help you remember at the appointment how you’ve been feeling.
● Go to your appointment with your partner, or a close family member or friend, especially if they’re noticing changes in you. Their insights will be really helpful, especially if you’re struggling to describe what you’re feeling.
● Make the effort to stay connected with other people. Mother’s groups, playgroup and activities are your local library are all ways to be with other parents.
● Aim to do some sort of exercise each day. Even a 30-minute walk pushing the pram will help your brain to release ‘feel good’ hormones which will improve your mood.
● Eat a healthy diet and limit sweet treats and processed foods. Research supports the brain-gut connection and its influence on emotions and mood. Make the effort to think about what you’re eating and drinking. If you’re too exhausted to shop, buy and order on-line and cook with your partner.
● Focus on what’s important and prioritise what needs to be done. Try to finish one task each day so you feel a sense of accomplishment. Change the sheets on your bed, declutter a table, pay some bills – it doesn’t matter what it is, but do something each day which makes it a little different from the others.
● Spend some time researching digital tools and apps to help you assess and track your symptoms. These can be incredibly helpful, especially when they’re used in combination with talking and other therapies.
Written for Milton by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse