The Many Faces of Maternal Mental Illness

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Postpartum depression is not the only behavioral health disorder that affects new and expectant mothers.

When you think of new motherhood and mental health, you might picture a downcast, fatigued woman who seems disinterested in her baby — a mother with postpartum depression. More serious than post-delivery mood swings, postpartum depression can cause irritability, sadness, feelings of hopelessness or guilt, weight fluctuations, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and reduced energy or interest in favorite activities.

The cause of postpartum depression is unclear, but shifting hormone levels during and after pregnancy could be a factor. Personal history of depression —postpartum or otherwise — as well as stress place women at risk for postpartum depression. The condition can last for weeks or months, so do not put off seeking help if you notice symptoms.

Not What You Had in Mind?

The images of pregnancy, parenthood and mental illness you probably do not visualize are of women fearing to change their babies’ diapers because of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), experiencing prolonged highs and lows of mood due to bipolar disorder, or feeling so anxious that a panic attack occurs.

Researchers are beginning to understand that women can face a variety of mental health challenges that may begin during pregnancy or up to a year afterward. Studies indicate that during the first year with baby, one in eight women experience symptoms of a mental health condition or a combination of disorders, such as postpartum depression and OCD.

If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder, speak with your physician about managing the condition during pregnancy and after birth, particularly when it comes to taking medications. Women who have had panic attacks before are more likely to have them during pregnancy, but they can also occur in pregnant women with no history of them.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), pregnant women or new mothers with bipolar disorder have double the risk of experiencing recurring symptoms — which can include drastic mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and changes in sleep or dietary patterns — compared to women who have the disorder but are not pregnant or parents.

Pregnancy and childbirth increase women’s risk of developing postpartum or perinatal OCD, signs of which may include depression or baby-focused obsessions, such as inordinately fearing for the baby’s safety. The baby may be the object of compulsive behavior, including constantly checking on him or her.

If you experience symptoms of mental illness during pregnancy or after birth, you are not alone, so seek help as early as possible — for yourself and your baby. Speak with your primary care physician or a mental health professional about managing the condition, and learn more about pregnancy and mental health from NAMI (NAMI.org), the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA.org), and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH.NIH.gov).

It’s almost time to bring your baby home! Take time to schedule birthing classes and a hospital tour.

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