Having a baby is a completely life-changing experience, and it can be difficult to adjust. Up to one in five women and one in ten men are affected by mental health problems during a pregnancy and in the first year after birth. Unfortunately, only half of these problems are diagnosed.
‘Perinatal Mental Illness’ is a general term, used to describe a collection of illnesses that can affect mothers any time from conception to the baby’s first birthday.
It’s now being accepted that it’s not just mothers’ mental health that can be affected. Perinatal mental illness can affect their partners too.
Without appropriate treatment, mental health problems during the perinatal period (from conception to a year after birth) can have long-lasting negative consequences, not only for women, but also for their partners and children too.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When problems are diagnosed early and treatment offered promptly, things are easier for everyone.
There are 3 main types of perinatal mental illness
- ‘The Blues’- feeling tearful, anxious and low
- Postnatal illness
- Postpartum psychosis
Many women feel a bit down, tearful or anxious in the first week after giving birth. After all, your hormones are all over the place! This is often called the ‘baby blues‘ and is so common that it’s considered normal. The ‘baby blues’ don’t last for more than two weeks after giving birth.
Postnatal depression (PND) is very common, affecting between 10 to 15 in every 100 women having a baby. Postnatal depression can start at any time during the first year after giving birth.
The symptoms are similar to those experienced with depression at other times, including low mood. They last at least two weeks.
Postpartum psychosis is one of the most severe types of postnatal illness. It affects around one in every 1,000 women who give birth. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘puerperal psychosis’ or ‘postnatal psychosis’.
A small number of women with very severe depression develop psychotic symptoms. They may hear voices, have unusual beliefs and display bizarre, out of character behaviour.
A woman with postpartum psychosis may experience:
- a high mood (mania) – she may talk and think very quickly, feel ‘on top of the world’, or be more sociable than normal
- a loss of inhibitions
- paranoia, feeling suspicious or fearful
- restlessness or agitation
- a low mood – she may show signs of depression and be withdrawn or tearful, with a lack of energy, loss of appetite, anxiety, irritability or trouble sleeping
- severe confusion
Postpartum psychosis is a serious mental illness, and should be treated as a medical emergency. This is because, if not treated immediately, the postpartum psychosis can get worse rapidly. The illness could cause her to neglect or harm her baby, or harm herself.
Causes of perinatal mental illness
Research suggests that there are many things that can lead to mental illness in women who give birth. These include:
- a history of mental health problems, particularly depression, earlier in life
- a history of mental health problems during pregnancy
- having no close family or friends to support you
- a poor relationship with your partner
- recent stressful life events, such as a bereavement
- prolonged ‘baby blues’ or experiencing ‘baby blues’ in a previous pregnancy
Even if you don’t have any of these symptoms, having a baby is a life-changing event that can sometimes trigger depression. It often takes time to adapt to becoming a new parent. Looking after a small baby can be stressful and exhausting.