Depression: Post-natal

There is a myth that motherhood is always wonderful, and that all other mothers cope magnificently. Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to not coping, and mothers are reluctant to say when things are not going well. Most mothers are familiar with the term Baby Blues – this is very common, with approximately 50-80% of women experiencing some feelings of blueness in the week after having a baby. The ‘Blues’ consist of feeling more emotional and vulnerable than usual, and can last from a few hours to a couple of days. The Blues usually go away on their own, and are best helped by understanding and support from those around. However, for some mothers, the stress of the new born baby and extreme tiredness can turn into depression and/or anxiety. Postnatal depression affects about 10 to 20 per cent of women giving birth, and can appear in the first few days or several weeks after the birth. Postnatal depression is more than feeling down for a short period. It consists of symptoms such as low mood, tearfulness, irritability, extreme tiredness, loss of ability to enjoys things, negative thinking, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety or panic, poor concentration and sleep difficulties. Many mothers also find themselves worrying about things they would not normally be concerned about. If these symptoms have continued for at least a couple of weeks then it is time to seek help.

The spate of celebrities, such as Brooke Shields and Courtney Cox, who have publicised their experiences, has been very positive in that it has helped women realise that ‘it can happen to anyone’. However, there are still a number of barriers that prevent women from seeking help. Often women realise something is not right, but find it difficult to distinguish between normal levels of distress or tiredness and distress that warrants help. Women also don’t want to say that they are having difficulty coping, and therefore struggle on alone.

Maintaining good mental health in the postnatal period can help both prevent, and recover, from postnatal depression or anxiety. It’s important to plan regular weekly time without the baby. Often things reach crisis point before everyone rallies to help. It’s much better to take a preventative approach. Often just knowing that you have, for example, a couple of hours break each Sunday morning, can keep you going. Physical activity is also a helpful way to manage low mood and anxiety even if this is just a short morning walk with the baby. Usual household chores and outings can feel overwhelming, so by planning activities for specific times in advance, most important things get done. The more social support you have from friends and family, the less vulnerable you will be to anxiety and stress. Mothers’ groups can be a good way to connect with other mothers. But it is important to seek out like-minded others who are willing to be honest. If you’re in a mothers’ group where everyone is saying things are perfect, you won’t relate to them. Develop a list of what works best for you for those times when you feel down or anxious. Your list might include; going for a walk, a bath, being outside in the sunshine, or putting on some music. Most importantly tell someone, such as your partner, a family member, midwife or GP if you are finding it difficult to cope. There is well researched treatment available for Postnatal depression and anxiety that does not necessarily include medication. There are also a number of support agencies and health professionals in Christchurch who work in this specific field. Further information about postnatal depression and anxiety can be obtained from

Dr Michelle McCarthy is in private practice. She can be contacted at The Anxiety Clinic and Centre for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.


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