Perinatal Mental Health: Knowing When to Get Help

While it is common to experience some anxiety and low moods during pregnancy and after giving birth, for some women, these feelings can be unmanageable. As many as one in five women experience perinatal depression – and it is important to be able to determine when help is needed, both from medical professionals and friends and family.

"This means that for most women, help should be fairly easy to access, so long as they are able to reach out for it."

Recently, the early detection and treatment of perinatal depression and anxiety has been in the spotlight, with medical professionals now able to follow national guidelines to assess and diagnose affected women. This means that for most women, help should be fairly easy to access, so long as they are able to reach out for it.

Unfortunately, for some women, access can be a problem, both due to physical isolation and because the feelings associated with depression can cause mothers to isolate themselves further. There may also be a sense of shame over their perceived lack of enthusiasm with their new role, which can be exacerbated by lack of sleep and the sheer relentlessness of life with a newborn. If there is little or no help from another parent, or from other family members, women may knuckle down at home in the hopes they will feel better soon, all the while feeling worse.

Even if you don’t feel up to it, getting out for a walk or making it to activities such as ‘Wriggle and Rhyme’ or baby yoga class can make all the difference for some women, but for others this can feel close to impossible. If the latter is the case, that should be a good indication that something is not right and medical help may be needed to get you through this period.

Other symptoms of perinatal depression may include:

  • Unexplained tearfulness
  • Irritability with the baby, your partner, or just with life in general
  • A sense of hopelessness and inability to cope
  • Change in appetite
  • Loss in interest for caring for yourself
  • Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness
  • Insomnia 
  • Low energy and loss of motivation
  • Urinary issues: Women may need to pee more frequently than usual
  • Psychological changes: Menopausal women may experience mood swings, forgetfulness and indecisiveness

What can friends and family do to help?

It is important to reach out and let friends and family know what you are experiencing, even if you feel your symptoms are less serious than others. Finding help early can reduce the hold the depression has on you and give you space to recover.

– Taking over housework

– Holding the baby while you have a walk or shower 

– Taking you and baby out for some fresh air

– Driving you to appointments or activities

– Listening to how you feel

– Babysitting for a date night

What can medical professionals do to help?

Your GP, obstetrician or midwife may be your first port of call when experiencing these symptoms. At your postnatal check up, they will ask some questions especially formulated to determine if you are at risk of depression or anxiety. Answer honestly, and if you are not asked for any reason, be sure to bring it up yourself. There is no shame in experiencing these symptoms and every benefit in getting help to recover, for you, your baby and the rest of your family.

Your doctor may:

  • Provide advice and referrals for lifestyle adjustments and support networks
  • Refer for psychological treatments such as therapy or counselling
  • Prescribe medications such as antidepressants, after careful consultation with you and, if your permission is given, with your partner and wider family. The risks and benefits of such a prescription will be carefully explained.