What is perinatal mental illness?

Perinatal mental illnesses like anxiety and depression are common and can be serious. One in five expecting or new mothers and one in ten expecting or new fathers will experience anxiety and/or depression, affecting around 100,000 families across Australia every year.

Left untreated, perinatal mental illness can have long-lasting impacts on parents, partners, baby and the rest of the family. The key to getting help is being able to recognise that something is wrong and being brave enough to ask for help – to ‘tell someone who cares’.  That might be talking to your partner, child and family health nurse, doctor or PANDA’s National Helpline.

What does perinatal mean?

The term ‘perinatal’ refers to the period from the conception of a child through to the first year after birth.

‘Antenatal’ refers to the pregnancy period. ‘Postnatal’ refers to the first year after birth.

More than general ups and downs

Being pregnant or becoming a new parent can be both exciting and challenging. Having trouble adjusting to the changes that come with impending parenthood or the arrival of a new baby is natural.

Feeling a little ‘teary’, anxious or irritable for a few days in the weeks after the birth – often referred to as the ‘baby blues’ – is common. However, if you are an expecting or new parent and a low mood, feelings of anxiousness or other troubling thoughts or feelings start to cause you concerns or stop you from functioning normally, it might be time to ‘tell someone who cares’.

What’s the difference between anxiety and depression?

In general terms anxiety refers to an aroused mood – panic, agitation, frustration or anger.

Depression is often associated with low mood, sadness, hopelessness or withdrawal.

Many expecting and new parents experience both anxiety and depression at the same time.

Talking about it

Many parents experiencing perinatal mental health challenges feel overwhelmed, confused, isolated and ashamed about how they’re feeling. If this is you, try to remember that these thoughts are common, you are not alone and that help is available.

It can be hard to recognise that something is wrong and it takes courage to seek help. Community expectations and stigma can make it difficult to acknowledge that you are struggling and seek the support you need.

But it’s important to get help early so you can get support to take the first steps to recovery. That’s the best outcome for you as well as your baby and partner. 

Admitting you need help and seeking treatment or advice is not a sign of weakness. It shows that you want the best for yourself and your family.

Recognising perinatal mental illness

Perinatal mental illnesses like anxiety and depression can be difficult to recognise for a whole range of reasons. Symptoms are often dismissed as normal parts of pregnancy or early parenthood. Shame and stigma can lead to a ‘mask of coping’. Symptoms can look different for each person.

Signs may include:

  • Feeling sad, low, or crying for no obvious reason
  • Persistent, generalised worry, often focused on fears for the health or wellbeing of your baby
  • Being nervous, ‘on edge’, or panicky
  • Being easily annoyed or irritated
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Difficulties sleeping, even when your baby is sleeping
  • Abrupt mood swings
  • Feeling constantly tired and lacking energy
  • Physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, lack of appetite
  • Having little or no interest in the things that normally bring you joy
  • Fear of being alone or with others
  • Finding it difficult to focus, concentrate or remember
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Panic attacks (racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking or feeling physically ‘detached’ from your surroundings)
  • Developing obsessive or compulsive behaviours
  • Thoughts of death, suicide or harming your baby.

There are also many other symptoms not listed here. If you or someone close to you experiences any symptoms or feelings that worry you and impact your ability to cope, please seek support.

Postnatal psychosis

Postnatal psychosis is a rare but serious illness that affects one to two new mums in every 1000 and can put both mother and baby at risk. It almost always requires hospital admission. The symptoms often arrive suddenly and can include extreme mood swings, significant behaviour changes and loss of touch with reality.

If you suspect a new mum you know may have postnatal psychosis, you can:

  • take her to a doctor
  • take her to the nearest hospital emergency department
  • call PANDA’s National Helpline – 1300 726 306

Where to seek help for perinatal mental illness

We know that everyone experiences postnatal anxiety and depression differently. The best way for people who are struggling to start feeling better will depend on their own experience – what their symptoms are and how strongly they feel them.

What we do know is that the sooner people seek support, the sooner they can start feeling better.

It’s important for expecting and new parents who are worried about their emotional and mental wellbeing to seek support. They can speak with a trusted health professional such as a doctor or family health nurse, or call PANDA’s free National Perinatal Mental Health Helpline.

PANDA’s National Perinatal Mental Health Helpline 1300 726 306 9am – 7.30pm Mon – Friday (AEST/AEDT). The Helpline is also open from now until the end of February 2021 on Saturdays 9am – 7.30pm.

There is also important and up-to-date information about perinatal anxiety and depression and postnatal psychosis on PANDA’s websites:

www.panda.org.au

www.howisdadgoing.org.au

PANDA’s Mental Health Checklist for Expecting and New Parents

It can be hard to know what emotions and experiences are normal and which ones should give you cause for concern. PANDA’s Mental Health Checklist for Expecting and New Parents is a free, anonymous online tool on PANDA’s website that asks questions about your thoughts and feelings and will give an indication of whether your experiences could be a reason to seek help.

PANDA’s Checklist is accessible and user friendly and its content was created with direct input from people who experienced mental health difficulties as expecting or new parents, as well as experts in perinatal mental illness from PANDA’s counselling and research teams.

The Checklist asks questions about changes you may have noticed since starting the journey to becoming a parent – in your body and behaviour; in your thoughts and feelings; and in your relationships.

Upon completing the Checklist you will receive a Results summary that can be taken to appointments with care providers to help you talk to them about how you’ve been feeling. You can also opt to send your results directly to PANDA and request a call back.

*This information was reproduced with permission from panda.org.au for PANDA Week 2020.

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