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Support and Care for Postnatal Depression

by José Calvo(more info)

listed in depression, originally published in issue 250 - November 2018

Although families throughout the world experience a great deal of joy surrounding the birth or adoption of a child, there are many parents who go through some degree of mental anguish as part of the process. It is estimated that 10 to 15% of women suffer from postpartum depression after bringing a child into the world, as well as 10% of new fathers. While postpartum mental health issues are becoming more widely discussed among families and medical professionals, the number of people dealing with depression and anxiety due to a new child may be under-reported. This is because there is still a stigma surrounding mental health, generally speaking, leaving many new parents misdiagnosed initially. 

Support and Care for Postnatal Depression

To help combat the serious issues that come with postnatal mental health concerns, new parents, their families and friends, and their doctors must pay close attention to the warning signs. Going without treatment for postpartum issues as a new mother or father can be devastating not only to the patient but to the child and extended family as well. Shedding greater light on postnatal mental health issues starts with recognizing the common symptoms of the condition, as well as understanding why misdiagnosis happens. Fortunately, there are treatment options available when postpartum depression, anxiety, or other similar conditions present among new parents.

The Warning Signs

The reason postpartum depression among new parents is often overlooked and underdiagnosed revolves around the often vague warning signs that come with the condition. The NHS offers some guidance on the most common symptoms of mental health issues after birth, citing the following as red flags for new parents and their loved ones:

  • Experiencing extreme exhaustion, above and beyond that of most new parents;
  • Difficulty sleeping at night;
  • Debilitating feelings of sadness and loneliness;
  • Little motivation or energy throughout the day;
  • Inability to focus or concentrate;
  • Not bonding with a new child;
  • Lacking enjoyment is regular activities;
  • Thoughts of harming a new child;
  • Avoiding interaction with others;
  • Stomach pain and tension headaches that aren’t otherwise explained.

These common red flags of postnatal depression require immediate intervention on behalf of the parent, either from family members, friends, or medical professionals. However, although postpartum depression is the most prevalent mental health condition among new parents, there are other issues that may arise after the birth or adoption of a child. Anxiety, newly formed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also present. Very rare cases of psychosis could also develop, due to a change in hormones in the mother or father. The wide range of symptoms that could be connected to any one of these postpartum issues could have serious consequences for the parents and the child when not detected and treated early in the process.

Misdiagnosis is Common

Even though the prevalence of postpartum depression and other related mental health disorders is high among new parents, misdiagnosis is an ongoing challenge. According to a group of medical negligence specialists in the UK, a slow or inaccurate diagnosis of postnatal depression may take place in as many as half of new parents with the condition. This can be correlated to the stigma of mental health conditions still present in the medical community, as well as a lack of support for new parents from family and friends.

When new parents experience one or more of the symptoms relating to postnatal mental health conditions, they may fear going to their primary doctor for a variety of reasons. Not only is there a concern over what that diagnosis may be, but there is also a misconception that the child may be taken away from them for a period of time. Adding to these issues is the reality that many new parents fail to be seen by a doctor or other medical professional at the same frequency as a newborn child. The attention is placed on ensuring the well-being of the infant, not the parents, and so it is common for mental health disorders to go unnoticed and ultimately, undiagnosed.

Treatment Options and Support

The responsibility to receive a proper diagnosis of postpartum mental health conditions lies not only on the new parent but on their doctor as well. Care should be taken to speak openly and honestly with medical providers about symptoms experienced by the father or mother after the birth of a child. When this takes place, treatment options abound. New parents are often first recommended to try at-home remedies for mental health conditions, including shifting attention and energy toward positive activities and new opportunities to bond with a child. When this treatment course is not enough, other options may be provided.

Parents with postpartum depression, anxiety, or other conditions properly diagnosed by their healthcare provider may also benefit from speaking to a therapist. Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is often beneficial in working through some of the feelings of depression and anxiety that take place after a child enters a home. The addition of low-dose antidepressants may also be a remedy for new parents who have more severe symptoms. Finally, individuals who are close to new parents with postnatal mental health should be as supportive as possible, offering to give the parents a much-needed break while being encouraging about their new role in the world. The combination of these treatment and support strategies can make a world of difference for parents and their children, but it starts with recognizing there is no shame in diagnosis.

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About José Calvo

José Calvo is a health editor with a degree in Journalism and Social Communications, currently writing for several UK publications such as the Talk Health Partnership and Socialist Health. He works for a digital agency from Leeds called 90 Digital, helping health charities to raise awareness on campaigns about misunderstood or commonly misdiagnosed conditions. He is also a mindfulness meditation practitioner and a passionate advocate of its benefits. Find him on Twitter at @morienus

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