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How to deal with post-natal mental health issues

by Sarah Graham
Tuesday 07 April 2015
10346 16538

We recently published the advice of four RSCPP therapists on how to look after your mental health and wellbeing during pregnancy. Besides the challenges of adjusting to life with a new, dependent human being to look after, new parents - and particularly new mothers - can be affected by a number of mental health concerns, which make adjusting to their new lifestyle all the more difficult. We asked two RSCPP therapists to explain the mental health issues parents may face after birth, and how to deal with any post-natal concerns you may have about yourself or your partner.

Coming to terms with traumatic childbirth

Complications and traumatic childbirths are rare, but understandably distressing to the new mother. Besides having a new baby to look after, you may still be struggling to come to terms with your experience, and it can be difficult to find time to process that distress. Accredited Counsellor Anna Storey , who does some voluntary work for a birth trauma association, says: "My job consists mainly of giving email advice to new mums on how to deal with the consequences of their traumatic birth experience, helping them to find a counsellor, etc. More often than not I help mothers to start processing the birth experience itself, confirming that what happened was indeed quite traumatic, and it is hardly surprising that a new mother is feeling low, anxious or depressed,"

She adds: "I am talking here of a physical trauma - something went wrong, there were complications, medical support was inadequate, or baby or mother's life was in danger. What is surprising, though, is how often I get emails from mothers who have delivered healthy babies and are feeling physically ok, yet emotionally they are in a complete turmoil. I am not talking about post-natal depression, which may be caused by hormones, lack of sleep, and a complete change of lifestyle; these are cases when emotional distress is caused by a wide gap between mother's expectation of birth and her actual birth experience."

Emotional distress is sometimes caused by a wide gap between mother's expectation of birth and her actual birth experience.

Many expectant mothers may feel under pressure to achieve a "natural birth", Anna explains. "More often than not, these women had an idealised picture of birth - completely 'natural', almost pain free, no medication or drugs involved. This is a fantastic idea in itself, and it's great when birth goes as planned, but unfortunately it is not often the case. Thousands of things can go and do go wrong and medical help is required. As a result, instead of feeling exhilarated and proud after giving birth to a healthy baby, new mothers feel like failures. This feeling of inadequacy and failure can sometimes develop into depression."

Before birth, as well as preparing for the emotional impact of becoming a parent, it may be a good idea to prepare yourself for the idea that childbirth may not necessarily go exactly to plan, rather than putting pressure on yourself to have the 'perfect' delivery. "What works for one mother could be completely wrong for another, and there is no need to make a failure from what should be a celebration," Anna says.

If you are struggling with these feelings of disappointment and inadequacy after giving birth, do seek the support of a medical professional, therapist, or experienced friend or relative, who can reassure you and help you come to terms with what you've been through. Remember that giving birth is a huge achievement in itself, and you've done a great job bringing your child into the world.


Post-natal mental health conditions

Regardless of your experience of birth, the first few months of becoming a parent inevitably make for an incredibly emotional, challenging time, both physically and mentally, and different parents will cope in different ways. In some cases, the intensity of the mixed emotions you will experience can lead to post-natal mental health conditions. This is relatively common, with around 1 in 10 women developing mental health issues either during pregnancy or within the first year after having a baby. 

"Post-natal depression (PND) is the most well-known, but some mothers suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), postpartum psychosis, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, adjustment difficulties, and stress," says Registered Psychotherapist Esmee Rotmans.

Post-natal depression can affect not only the mother but also her relationship with the baby, so it is important to get the right support.

"Post-natal depression has similar symptoms to depression, and can be on a spectrum from mild to severe. Symptoms may start during pregnancy, some women may have had depressive symptoms prior to their pregnancy, and other women may have a sudden onset of PND with no history of depression. It can affect not only the mother but also her relationship with the baby, so it is important to get the right support," she adds.

Even if you are not affected by a particular mental health concern, Esmee says, as a new parent you can still expect to experience moments of anger, frustration, anxiety, low mood, isolation, as well as moments of joy, love and connectedness with your baby. "No two parents are the same so, while there may be similarities, each parent may experience it in their own unique way," she explains. 

If you have any concerns about your own, or your partner's, mental health after the birth of a child, remember it's important to seek help before the problem gets any worse. Post-natal mental health problems can be treated, and tackling them early will make those important first months with your baby much happier and easier to cope with.

Finding support

If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 07 April 2015