Applied Psychology

What is Postnatal Depression?

May 19, 2022 | By Saranna Durham
What is Postnatal Depression? - SACAP
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Postnatal Depression (PND), also known as postpartum depression (PPD) or the baby-blues, is a type of depression that affects new moms. Postnatal depression can occur after childbirth. It can happen to any woman, regardless of her background or circumstances. Thus, a pre-existing medical condition isn’t an indicator nor is it a requirement for PND to manifest. Although, mental health challenges, such as severe anxiety and mood disorders, do put some women at a higher PPD risk.

Recognition of Postnatal Depression

Hippocrates (460 – 370BC) was one of the first to write about depression, which he called melancholia. Within these texts, he recognised postnatal depression. His ideas continued into the mediaeval times and some continue into today’s understanding of depression.

During the 19th century, post-childbirth women who developed baby-blues were often treated for hysterical tendencies and depression. During this period, postpartum depression was termed puerperal insanity. Which essentially means the juncture of childbirth and female mental illness. As time passed, and more insight was gained, PND became more widely recognised within both the medical field and society. During the late 1980s and 1990s postnatal mental health was given amplified attention by researchers and the media. Consequently, pressure to recognise it as a serious medical condition, by countries’ legal systems and medical institutions, increased. Today it is seen to be a treatable condition and one which many mothers are monitored for after giving birth.

The Difference between Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis

Postpartum depression is more common than postpartum psychosis (PPP). They are two different mental health conditions. The biggest difference between the two is the seriousness of the illness due to how it manifests. Those with PPP tend to experience paranoia delusions, hallucinations or homicidal thoughts amongst other things. This can potentially put both the mother and the child at risk.

Why does Postnatal Depression Happen?

While there are suspected likely causes, the reality is that no one really knows why PND occurs. It is not brought on by a mother’s actions, thoughts or beliefs. Neither is PND or PPP an indicator of if a mother loves her child or if she will be able to be a good parent. It is a medical condition.

It is estimated that between 10 and 20% of women experience PND after giving birth. However, many researchers believe this is an underestimation and PPD is more common than recorded.

5 Common Postpartum Risk Factors:

  1. Family history (Genetics).
  2. Personal mental and medical history (particularly anxiety and bipolar disorders).
  3. Unexpected or unplanned pregnancy.
  4. Hormone imbalances and thyroid challenges.
  5. Being less than 25 years old.

“Women who miscarry, have a stillbirth or give their babies up for adoption can suffer from postpartum depression.”

Usually, PND starts in the first few days after giving birth. Although it has been known to manifest up until a year after giving birth. Many women experience depressive symptoms, baby-blues, for two weeks after giving birth. However, it is common for PPD to last 3 to 6 months and most women make a full recovery. And for some women it can last longer. In fact, it’s estimated that symptoms, for 25% of women, continue until after their baby turns 1-years old. Regardless of gender, those with partners who develop postpartum depression, are at a high risk of developing depression themselves.

What does PND feel like?

Women who have it can experience a range of symptoms and various combinations of them. PPD is a very real condition and should not be taken lightly.

10 Common Symptoms of Postnatal Depression:

  1. Crying a lot.
  2. Guilt; feeling inadequate or worthless.
  3. Anger or intense irritability.
  4. Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy.
  5. Under or overeating.
  6. Difficulty thinking and making decisions.
  7. Panic attacks and heightened levels of anxiety.
  8. Having harmful thoughts about your baby or self.
  9. Feeling disconnected or battling to bond with your baby.
  10. Not feeling connected or withdrawing from family and friends.

When to get help with PND

Suspecting or discovering that you have PPD is not a weakness. Seeking assistance before things spiral is a good thing to do for yourself, your family and your baby. It’s better to be cautious, so rather make an appointment and see your doctor sooner rather than later.

Make an appointment with your doctor if your symptoms get worse or you battle to look after yourself and baby. Alternatively, seek professional assistance if after two weeks you still have depressive symptoms. If you start to have thoughts of harming either yourself or your baby, seek medical care immediately.

Treatment of PPD

Depending on the severity of your Postnatal Depression, there are a number of avenues your medical practitioner could suggest. If there is an underlying illness, such as a thyroid problem, they will often begin by addressing this. If the depression isn’t too severe, they may provide direct treatment in the form of counselling and/or medication. Alternatively, they may recommend seeing a mental health professional.

It is not uncommon to feel the baby-blues for two weeks after giving birth. Therefore, it is recommended that new mothers avoid alcohol or anything that alters mood during this period. Aside from seeking treatment, it is important that you accept help from friends and family. Especially your partner. Joining a new mom-and-baby group has proved to be very helpful to many moms. Practising self-care will also make a big difference when recovering from PPD.

Assisting those with PPD

If you are interested in helping new mom’s overcome PPD and PPP, then consider a career within the mental health care field. The South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP) has courses in the Applied Psychology facility which can assist you to do this. Make an appointment with a course advisor or enrol online to take the first steps towards assisting new moms.

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