Why Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Is on the Rise for Australian Parents

perinatal anxiety depression

The day I was diagnosed with perinatal depression was like a clichéd scene from a movie; I’d just hurt my back from the ‘arduous’ task of picking a dummy off the ground, and it rendered me hunched and in agony.

On my way into the Maternal Health Clinic for my daughter’s 12-week check-up, rainclouds hung precariously low. They burst as we scampered in.

Once inside, she wailed while I wept.

The nurse took one look at the two of us and said… “we’re going to get you some help.”

With those words, she let in a sliver of light; of hope.

It was enough.

In the three months that preceded this day, I’d never felt more love in my entire life.

I’d also never felt more broken.

I was prescribed antidepressants by my GP that afternoon, I started seeing a psychologist and I received some (much needed) help with sleep training my little girl.

While studies show rates of perinatal depression and anxiety are on the rise, so is our knowledge of this mental health condition and the support options to treat it.

PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) CEO, Julia Borninkhof chatted to The Latch about the latest research and support strategies for people experiencing this condition.

What Is Perinatal Anxiety and Depression?

Perinatal anxiety and depression are mental health conditions affecting the mood, behaviour, wellbeing and/or daily function of a new parent, from conception to one year after the birth.

Borninkof told The Latch that experts in the field no longer solely focus on ‘post-birth’ in isolation, as studies are showing that depression can start in pregnancy. Perinatal anxiety and depression affect one in five expecting or new mothers, and one in 10 fathers. This equates to 100,000 families across Australia.

Why Is Perinatal Anxiety and Depression on the Rise?

In the past two years, the number of callers to PANDA has doubled. Borninkof said, “we know that COVID has significantly impacted many new parents”. She went on to add that “global events including natural disasters” have also had a detrimental effect on parents’ mental health.

However, the increase in reported diagnoses may reflect society’s acceptance of mental health issues, rather than an increase in cases. Borninkof said; “we are also pleased to see that people across the country are more willing to say that they are struggling with their mental health, generally.”

What Are the Signs?

Having a child is a major change to a parent’s life, therefore, it’s imperative to show yourself acceptance and compassion for the range of emotions that may naturally arise.  Borninkof said, if you or a loved one presents with the following signs for more than two weeks, it may be time to get help:

  • Feeling sad, low, hopeless, frequent crying
  • Difficulty with focus, concentration or memory, ‘brain fog’
  • Feeling disconnected from your pregnancy or baby and loved ones
  • Abrupt mood swings
  • Angry, frustrated, easily irritated
  • Feeling worthless, ashamed, self-critical
  • Lacking energy or motivation
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, persistent fatigue
  • Appetite changes
  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviour (eg substance use, overspending)
  • Little or no interest in daily activities that usually bring joy (time with family and friends, exercise, food, career, study or hobbies)
  • Feeling isolated and lonely even around others, withdrawing from loved ones
  • Urges to self-harm
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

What Can Be Done in Terms of Treatment?

Borninkof said that there are several treatment options available, but “treatment is very individual and determined on a case by case basis”. She added; “options generally include counselling with a mental health clinician” and may require medication. Also, “people experiencing perinatal mental health issues may benefit from support groups (both in person and online) and online treatment programs.”

How Can You Support Someone?

Borninkof said; “there is a range of practical strategies to support someone experiencing perinatal mental health challenges”.  She outlined the following for partners:

  • Support their sleep: this might mean getting up to do night feeds, nappy changes and settling, or encouraging your partner to go to bed early while you put the baby and other children to bed.
  • Communicate: don’t be afraid to let your partner know that you are there for them if they need to talk or need support. Knowing that others ‘see’ that things may be tough can sometimes be the motivator to seek professional help.
  • Assist your partner with seeking help: Help them make appointments, drive them to appointments and attend as their support person, if possible.
  • Take on extra care of the baby or older children: this could mean taking the kids for an hour while your partner goes for a walk or has a rest.
  • Do more around the house: babies generate an increase in domestic work, including cleaning, laundry, food preparation, and ‘life admin’ like family finances and making healthcare appointments. Managing these tasks can be a huge support to your partner.

Whilst this can be an incredibly difficult time, know that you are not alone. Amazing support and guidance are at your fingertips.

As for me, well, my daughter is now seven years old. She loves reading, netball and making people laugh.

Her name is Lucy, which means light.

It could not suit her more.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is an expecting or new parent who is dealing with anxiety or depression, please contact the PANDA National Helpline on 1300 187 263. 

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