Our visions of motherhood tend to be pretty rosy. We imagine the baby snuggles, the cute outfits and the unconditional, fiercely protective love that we’re told will overcome us. Adjusting to life with a new baby is hard enough, and even harder if you’re also dealing with depression or anxiety.
Postnatal depression (PND) is depression that develops between 1 and 12 months after a baby’s birth. It’s different to the baby blues that up to 80% of new mothers experience between day 3 and 10, after giving birth. The baby blues usually only last for a couple of days and passes unassisted. PND can come on gradually or suddenly and can vary in severity and duration. The exact cause isn’t known but it’s likely to be related to the significant physical, emotional and life changes involved in having a baby.
With high hopes for this stage of life and high expectations of ourselves as mothers, many women struggle to admit that they’re not coping. Even admitting to yourself that you might have postnatal depression can be very confronting.
I’m fortunate to not have experienced PND myself. Regardless, I believe it’s so important that we look out for each other and understand the things that could be causing someone we care about to suffer.
Last year, I met the beautiful Zelma Broadfoot, who, after experiencing PND personally, dedicated herself to helping other PND sufferers find encouragement, help and community. I invited Zelma to share her insights about PND, where to get help if you think you might be affected, and how to help another mum who is struggling with PND.
Zelma, thank you for joining us to discuss such an important topic. Can you please share your own experience that has led you to want to help mums suffering from postnatal depression.
I always wondered whether I’d develop postnatal depression. I have experienced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety and depression in the past, so I knew I had a higher risk. However, I tried not to indulge the thought through fear of manifesting it. I escaped the day 3 blues and assumed I was out of the woods. Unfortunately, I did develop quite a severe case of postnatal depression.
I was often turned away from support services because of my instinctive parenting style. One practitioner even refused to support me unless I ceased breastfeeding (because I was having difficulty) and sleep trained my daughter; telling me that I “was bringing it upon myself”.
Although this was a very lonely time, I felt inspired by my pain and felt a passion I never knew existed. I put my social work training and lived experience to work and created an online resource and movement called The Postnatal Project for parents experiencing postnatal depression. My goal was to normalise the illness and reduce the stigma. I, however, didn’t realise how healing this process would be for me. Everything that I wrote on my website was very authentic. Every self help tip was taken from my own recovery and every piece of information was something that resonated with me. I share the journey of every person who visits my site and feels supported.
I am also a PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) Community Champion and hold a yearly fundraiser as well as distribute resources within the community.
What are the common myths around postnatal depression?
There are many preconceived ideas around what postnatal depression is. When we look more broadly at perinatal mental illness as a whole, we know that postnatal depression is not just reserved for the postpartum period. Depression and anxiety can also occur during pregnancy and up to 1 in 10 women and 1 in 20 men will experience this. After birth, the statistics go up. More than 1 in 7 women and 1 in 10 men experience depression or anxiety during this time. Postnatal psychosis affects 1 to 2 women in every 1000 after childbirth.
Perinatal mental health doesn’t discriminate. Often, women can be written off as having “first time mum syndrome” (a horrible term). But parents can experience postnatal depression irrespective of whether they are first, second, third, fourth time mums and dads. However, some research suggests that you’re at risk of developing postnatal depression a second time if you’ve previously experienced the illness.
A less commonly spoken of myth is that you can’t take anti-depressant medication and breastfeed. My advice for mothers and their families would be to have a separate referral to a psychiatrist wherever possible. GPs are great, but they are not specialists in prescribing medication. I urge breastfeeding mothers (in Australia) to contact Rodney Whyte, who specialises in medication whilst breastfeeding. His contact details are: R.WHYTE@SOUTHERNHEALTH.ORG.AU or (03) 9594 2361. He’s only too happy to support mothers on their breastfeeding journey. I know this as I’ve called him twice and he’s lovely.
When should you go first to seek assistance if you think you might be suffering from postnatal depression?
Trust your gut. In the first instance, it’s see your GP for an assessment. Better yet, your obstetrician – as they understand how your pregnancy progressed, how the birth unfolded and how you’re recovering. You may have completed an Edinburgh Scale during your antenatal appointments. This is usually used to screen for postnatal depression. You’ll most likely be referred to a psychologist if you score highly on this questionnaire. However, I always urge parents to follow their instincts. Don’t let a questionnaire dictate whether or not you seek treatment. A psychologist can be useful for anyone – regardless of the score.
I found getting a blood test was useful to rule out other causes for depression such as thyroid disorders or deficiencies.
Don’t feel discouraged if you struggle to receive the support you need. It’s okay to seek a second opinion if you aren’t feeling heard or supported.
Making contact with PANDA is a really great way to access support too. You can access PANDA’s free helpline on 1300 726 306 Monday – Friday 9am – 7:30pm AEST.
I think it’s important to surround yourself with a good support system. If you don’t have one, really work to build one. Even if you find online forums or groups to join that resonate with your parenting style. Baby-wearing and breastfeeding support groups are great places to connect with others sharing a similar journey.
Note: Here is a list of common symptoms of PND from Zelma’s website.
What are best ways to support a mum friend you think might have (or who definitely has) postnatal depression?
You can support a friend by being present in their life – whatever state she feels it’s in. So many people told me “I just wanted to leave you to it when I heard you were struggling”. Of course, this is a common response – and sometimes, a parent may need space. But often, I find offering support in whatever way you can will really help a person’s recovery.
There are some ideas listed on my website if you need a starting point. For example, things that helped me include:
– Having meals delivered or other practical tasks done so I could focus on resting and being with my family
– Sending text messages and phoning to show their love and offering practical support regularly
– Arranging to visit for a cup of tea (cake is also always appreciated!)
– Attending appointments with me when I felt I needed someone to hold my hand
– Coming over early in the morning so I could sleep in (usually reserved for a partner, grandparent or close friend)
– Talking to me as if I’m a valued human being – not someone with an illness that may catch
I also stress that consistently offering to “take the baby off their hands” can be undermining of the attachment and relationship they are trying to build with their baby.
Sure, watching the baby sleep or holding the baby while the mother has a shower is of course an amazing offer. And some parents would indeed appreciate some time to their self to think about a practical task. But I find that if you wish to help your friend, offer to do the dishes while your friend lays on the play mat with their baby and chats with you. Or offer to walk their dog while the parent pushes the pram or has their baby in the carrier, in the first instance. It’s useful to have this conversation early on and keep having it as the illness or recovery progresses as all parents are different in their needs.
Calling PANDA’s helpline* is also a fantastic idea. They will give you advice and education which will support you to support your friend. It might feel overwhelming to be a support for someone experiencing this serious illness so PANDA are able to offer support for you too.
*Call PANDA’s helpline on 1300726306 Monday – Friday 9am – 7:30pm AEST.
Zelma is a mum and trained social worker who is passionate about mental health and supporting others. She’s the founder of The Postnatal Project, which focuses on self-directed, sustainable, soulful recovery from postnatal depression. Visit Zelma’s website below to find out more about her journey and what The Postnatal Project offers. She also welcomes direct emails from anyone who requires some direction.