Beyond Baby Blues: Perinatal Anxiety and Depression

 

When Angela’s daughter was born last July, it was the best and worst day of her life.

Little Sarah came into the world after a breezy pregnancy and childbirth, but like 80 per cent of women, Angela showed symptoms of the baby blues and produced more tears than breast milk.

“I was due to leave the hospital when this growing feeling of fear started to come over me,” says Angela. “You’re in such a protective environment – you have the midwives on call, you have this really tight support network and I started getting really fearful.”

When Angela brought her baby home, she sat in the lounge room with her husband and cried. Two weeks later, people were telling her that she’d get over it. But she didn’t. Having suffered mild anxiety and depression at various stages throughout her life, Angela was already wary she might relapse when she had her baby. But it wasn’t until four weeks after giving birth that she discovered she was suffering from perinatal anxiety and depression. Formerly known as post-natal depression, perinatal anxiety and depression is when strong emotions that last for two weeks or more, and occur anywhere from conception to a year after birth, start to negatively impact on a mum or dad’s ability to function.

“The anxiety kept getting worse and worse,” admits Angela. “I was scared of my baby. I was scared when she cried because I didn’t know what to do. I got really angry with myself and with her because the situation was out of my control and for 35 years I’d been able to control everything and walk away if it was too hard.”

“I remember saying to my husband, ‘This was a huge mistake – it’s going to be like this forever.’” When Angela took Sarah for her four-week immunisation, she scored 23 on an Edinburgh Depression Scale test. Scoring 10 indicates possible depression. When she saw her obstetrician at the six-week mark, he immediately referred her to the Gidget Foundation, astounded that her doctor hadn’t taken action two weeks earlier.

A charity that’s raising awareness, and assisting families affected by perinatal anxiety and depression, the foundation was established in 2001 by friends and family of Gidget – a fun-loving woman from Sydney’s northern beaches who took her own life when her baby was just nine months old.

Gidget was happily married, had a steady job and wanted a baby more than anything. But after the birth of her child, she became increasingly unwell despite her happy facade. According to the foundation, chaired by Angela’s obstetrician, crippling mood disorders like these affect over 50,000 women who give birth in Australia each year.

Nearly 20 per cent of mothers and 10 per cent of fathers will experience perinatal anxiety and depression, which can also impact partners, families, friends, workplaces and child development. Gidget House opened in February 2014 offering holistic care and support for patients and their families and providing up to 10 free appointments with a psychologist.

It was these counselling sessions that were Angela’s saving grace. “It really felt like a safe haven for me,” she says. “My husband and I had tried to do everything on our own so we didn’t really have a support network. Everyone was offering but we’d just say, ‘No, no, it’s fine’ and close the door and hide in the screaming hell of this baby. Going to Gidget House was like having that support network again.”

Angela found she thrived for the first few hours after a session before relapsing into feeling overwhelmed the following day. So after a couple of months, her therapist suggested medication, which Angela initially avoided due to the attached stigma. And as Gidget Foundation CEO, Catherine Knox highlights, this is one of the greatest hurdles in treating perinatal anxiety and depression.

“Stigma surrounds all mental illness,” explains Knox. “Women are often reluctant to acknowledge their true feelings as we are conditioned by society that ‘motherhood is joyful’. No woman wants to be perceived as a ‘bad mother’.” “Secrecy around true feelings can leave vulnerable women feeling like ‘failures’, believing that they are the only person feeling distressed and so desperately unhappy,” she says.

According to Knox, “counselling in conjunction with medication has been shown to be successful in treating perinatal mood disorders. Counselling alone can also be successful in mild to moderate cases.” Angela has been on a low dose of medication since early November and continues to visit Gidget House once a month.

This combined treatment has helped her get to the point where she’s now considering a second child. “You can’t possibly prepare new mums for what they may experience,” says Angela. “I see pregnant women now and I’m fearful for them; it’s such a wonderful thing but it can also be so terrifying. It’s fantastic that something like the Gidget Foundation is out there.”

Parents and partners can take the first steps in supporting those suffering from perinatal anxiety and depression.

Here are some tips from Gidget Foundation CEO, Catherine Knox:

  1. Take the time to listen and acknowledge how a sufferer is feeling, without undermining them by telling them to “snap out of it”.
  2. Avoid offering solutions or trying to ‘fix’ them and instead let them know that you’ll be there for the journey.
  3. Avoid offering solutions or trying to ‘fix’ them and instead let them know that you’ll be there for the journey.
  4. Providing meals and helping with housework can help take a lot of strain off someone suffering from the illness.
  5. Looking after the baby can also give parents the opportunity to rest, spend time with each other or go to a doctor’s appointment.

For more information and support, call the national phone line on 1300 726 306 between 10am and 5pm, Monday to Friday, or visit gidgetfoundation.com.au