Shortly after the birth of her son, 33-year-old Anna was feeling upset and stressed.
Although she expected difficult moments, it felt like more than adjusting to motherhood.
“[I remember] calling my mum desperate for her to come over, asking my husband to finish work early every day, counting down the hours until I wasn’t with the baby on my own,” the Sydneysider says.
“I remember feeling very scared and alone and needed people around me.”
After speaking to her GP and psychologist, Anna was diagnosed with postnatal depression.
When a new parent says they are having a tough time, we often don’t know what to say or do.
But it’s critical we don’t ignore the issue in fear of saying the wrong thing, says Julie Borninkhof, CEO of PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia).
“People say they don’t know what to say or do, so they do nothing,” she says.
“That’s hard for the person who may be for the first time saying they are struggling.
“It does take time to adjust to becoming a new parent, but when that struggle turns to a real feeling of being stuck within that depressed and anxious state, then we really need to get people support.”
Why it’s important to take it seriously
Perinatal depression and anxiety is a collective term that refers to both antenatal depression (before the baby’s born) and postnatal depression (after the baby’s born).
But often someone won’t identify their issue as any of the above, explains Ms Borninkhof.
“Most people don’t come to you and say, ‘I think I have perinatal depression’.
“It’s usually ‘I’m not feeling right’, or ‘I’m feeling really overwhelmed, or quick to anger or frustrated and helpless’.”
She says we need to take these statements seriously.
“Especially if they indicate they feel they are at risk [of self-harm or suicide], then you want to take that seriously and make sure you are getting them care as soon as possible.”
Between one in seven and one in 10 women will experience perinatal depression. Partners can also experience it.
The severity of the illness lives on a spectrum, Ms Borninkhof says, and symptoms vary from person to person.
People with perinatal depression may be having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, be disengaged from activities, and experience loss or increase of appetite.
Dr Nicole Highet is the executive director of COPE (the Centre for Perinatal Excellence). She says a person might describe feeling sad or as having a loss of interest in life or their baby.
“It can be they are just not really enjoying life, through to being very debilitating making it hard to function let alone meet the demands of a new baby.”
What to say and do in those first moments
Rather than thinking you have to “fix” what is going on for that person, be curious instead, says Ms Borninkhof.
“Go in with a curious mind rather than fixing mind. Saying ‘Tell me more about that experience’ so you are helping them unpack it.
“Help them understand it doesn’t make them a bad parent or unable to love their child.”
Validating their feelings will encourage them to keep sharing. Dr Highet suggests acknowledging that parenting can be hard to demonstrate you aren’t judging them.
“Let the person know you are worried about them. Let them know you are there for them.
“It doesn’t need to be more complicated than saying, ‘How can I help?'”
Dr Highet says people often make the mistake of minimising that person’s experience by saying “this will pass” or “look on the bright side”.
“Recognise that it is something that needs treatment and support.”
Help them connect with their GP or health professional they are already engaged with.
That could be something simple like sharing resources or offering to make the appointment for them.
How to be supportive moving forward
Stay in contact after your initial conversation, and offer practical support as well as emotional, says Dr Highet.
“Things like dropping over a meal, offering to help with the washing, taking the baby for a walk to give them some time to themselves.
“Keep having conversations, keep listening.”
Anna says she felt supported when people would check in.
“When my dad would casually drop by after work and take baby out for a walk, when my mum would take a day off to spend with us, when my husband would take time to listen to me.
“A friend took the day off and took baby and I out for lunch, that meant more to me than she ever realised.”
If you feel the person is not engaging with you, don’t give up, Dr Highet says.
“[Rather than] saying, ‘I tried to call but they obviously don’t want me around’, instead understand that is part of the illness — having no energy or interest is a symptom.”
Ms Borninkhof recommends considering the whole family unit.
“If they have other kids already, how are they travelling? How is their partner impacted? Make sure you reach out to whole family unit to take pressure off.”
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