Giving birth is a powerful, life-changing experience, and it can produce many different emotions in a parent—often all at once. You might feel happiness, excitement, nervousness, and, at times, depression and anxiety.
Those can be scary words, especially when you connect them to a new child, but it's not uncommon to feel depressed or anxious in the days, weeks, and months following birth. Jamie Hales, a licensed clinical social worker at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, says postpartum depression and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are more common than you think.
"You're dealing with a lack of sleep, a lack of free time, a loss in identity, and less time with your partner," Hales says. "These are major life changes. Your new baby is taking up a lot of time and energy, and it can be difficult to speak up and ask for help."
Postpartum depression and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are not an indication of parenting abilities or individual strength. They are medical conditions, and awareness combined with proper treatment can help manage symptoms and improve familial bonds.
Signs and Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Many parents will experience mood swings, irritability, sadness, and a general sense of feeling overwhelmed after giving birth. The difference between these so-called "baby blues" and postpartum depression, however, lies mostly in the severity and longevity of symptoms.
Symptoms of postpartum depression and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders may include:
- Severe mood swings
- "Scary thoughts" about your baby
- Sleep disturbances
- Feelings of intense shame or guilt
- Loss of appetite and more
Patients might experience all, one, or a combination of these symptoms, and they may develop at any point during your pregnancy or appear within a year after giving birth. If these symptoms are left untreated, they may cause lasting negative health effects for both mom and baby, as well as spouses and other family members.
When in doubt, reach out to your medical provider if you have any questions or concerns.
Impacts of Untreated Postpartum Depression
Stigma regarding mental health can often prevent patients from seeking help. But postpartum depression that goes untreated can have lasting impacts on a parent, child, and the entire family unit.
Some patients will turn to substances to manage their symptoms, but experts say that is a dangerous—and common—coping mechanism.
"Alcohol is one of the most commonly turned-to substances, followed by cannabis, just because it's become so mainstream," Hales says. "We also have a clinic dedicated to treating women who are in the perinatal period who have opiate use disorder."
This kind of substance abuse can have lasting impacts on the family, Hales says. It can lead to a disconnect between parent and child, developmental issues, and, of course, personal health risk.
"Suicide and overdose are the two most common reasons women will die in the first year postpartum," Hales says. "It's important that we speak up when we see concerning behavior."
Treatment Options for Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are truly nothing to be ashamed of. They can impact mothers, fathers, biological parents, and adoptive parents. In fact, one in 10 men who are parents will be diagnosed with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, Hales says.
Treatment will vary depending on the severity of the postpartum depression and the parent's specific needs. The first step, though, is to speak up and "talk about your scary thoughts," Hales says, whether that's to a partner, a trusted friend, or a family member.
Then you should reach out to your doctor, who will assess if there are any other medical issues to address. They might also refer you to a mental health specialist, who can work with you to determine if therapy, medication, or a combination of both is the right path for you.
Patients can also take some steps at home to alleviate symptoms of postpartum depression, including:
- Reaching out to family, friends, and other parents for support
- Increasing rest and prioritizing self-care
- Avoiding drugs, alcohol, and caffeine, which can impact your mood
Postpartum Depression vs Postpartum Psychosis
While it's rare, some patients may experience a more extreme mental health crisis after giving birth. Postpartum psychosis typically occurs within the first week or so after delivery and is widely considered a medical emergency that requires immediate attention and treatment.
Symptoms of postpartum psychosis may include:
- Distorted thinking and thoughts that are not real (delusions)
- Seeing or hearing things that no one else can (hallucinations)
- Difficulty understanding what is and is not real
- Disorganized behavior or dangerous, impulsive activities
Patients who have previously experienced episodes of psychosis might be more likely to experience postpartum psychosis, Hales says, but it's not nearly as common as postpartum depression and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
"There's a big difference between postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression," Hales says. "The majority of people who end up having postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, or postpartum OCD are not going to do anything to hurt their kids."
If postpartum psychosis is something you're worried about, speak to your doctor.
How to Help Someone Struggling with Postpartum Depression
If you or someone you know is experiencing postpartum depression, seek help sooner rather than later. Check in often and offer non-judgmental support. Those experiencing depression may not always be aware of the symptoms, or they might be too scared to mention them at all.
"One of the best things you can do is just, frankly, ask," Hales says. "People can get weird asking each other about mental health or about their coping mechanisms because they don't want to upset anyone. But it's really important to have those conversations because when you're in it, it's hard to see."
Postpartum depression and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are ultimately treatable conditions that can—and do—improve with proper medical attention. If you have any concerns about your own mental well-being or someone else's, reach out.
- The Maternal Mental Health program at Huntsman Mental Health Institute offers a drop-in support group for expecting and new mothers seeking peer support within a confidential and safe space. This participant-driven group is facilitated by mental health and social work master's level students. To register or for more information, email us at MaternalMentalHealth@hsc.utah.edu.
- Postpartum Support International is an organization dedicated to increasing awareness among public and professional communities that offers several resources and support groups.
- If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, help is available. Call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or download the SafeUT app.