Perinatal Mental Health

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Many people may have heard of Postnatal Depression, but women can experience challenges with their mental health at any point during their pregnancy. Perinatal mental health is the umbrella term for all mental health conditions around pregnancy, including the period up to a year after birth. This covers prenatal/antenatal depression and postnatal depression (PND), which refer to specific times during pregnancy or after the birth of baby.

The likelihood of mental health problems are known to increase during pregnancy and in the postnatal period, and in response to this, there have been improvements in NHS maternity services that help pregnant women and new mums with their mental health, and in many areas there are dedicated mental health services or midwifery teams for women to access.

What are the risk factors for postnatal depression?

There are some risk factors that make some women more likely to experience a mental health condition during pregnancy, or postnatal depression, but remember that just because you have one or more of the risk factors, it does not mean you will develop a mental health condition, it just means it increases the chances of it happening to you. It can be helpful for some people to know if they are more at likely to develop a mental health problem so they can recognise any early signs. Risk factors include:

  • Lack of social and family support, feelings of loneliness or feeling unsupported by those around you.
  • Having had 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
  • Previous post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by one or more traumatic life events in the past.
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What are the symptoms of postnatal depression?

Initially, symptoms of PND may appear similar to the 'baby blues', such as feelings of sadness, irritability, fatigue, feeling emotionally 'frail' and crying easily and for no apparent reason, but will be more severe and will most likely dictate your emotional state throughout the day. They can also include feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger, guilt, worthlessness, extreme stress, feeling overwhelmed and, potentially, feeling detached or withdrawn from your baby or those you love. Whereas the symptoms of the baby blues subside after a couple of weeks, the symptoms of PND can last a year or longer, often occurring (or being noticed) months after your baby's birth. Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby may also occur. It is important to contact your GP, midwife or health visitor as soon as possible if you are experiencing these or are preoccupied with thoughts that may include death and dying.

There can also be significant physical effects for women if they develop PND. These can include weight loss and weight gain, as low mood can be a trigger for overeating or lack of appetite. The psychological symptoms can also cause physical symptoms such as tiredness and fatigue or being hypervigilant. This can lead to aches and pains and the development of illnesses such as stress-related skin conditions. Feeling tired and anxious can also make new mums feel reluctant about leaving their home and this can affect fitness levels when compared to pre-pregnancy.

Self-help measures during pregnancy or after you've had your baby include:

  • Seek help sooner rather than later. Your GP, midwife or health visitor will have plenty of advice and will be able to help you access relevant resources to help you. Be open and don't keep your feelings to yourself. Tell friends and family that you trust how you are feeling.
  • 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 and/or emotional. 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.
  • Schedule 30 minutes a day to prioritise your postnatal recovery. Pregnancy, childbirth and looking after a newborn is demanding upon the body and the mind. Looking after ourselves well postpartum will promote the recovery process.

If you feel like you are struggling, remember you are not alone. Confiding in your loved ones and seeking professional support early can ensure you have the necessary support to overcome any mental health difficulties you may face following the birth of your baby.

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