Depression, Mental Illness

Understanding postpartum mental illness

Motherhood is idealized in our culture. Women are often brought up to believe that having a baby is the most wonderful thing that can ever happen to them. For many, the birth of their child indeed the most joyful day of their lives. But for some women, it can also be the start of an unexpected and frightening journey into mental illness.

Postpartum mental illness affects millions of women each year. The Center for Disease Control estimates that at least 10% of women experience postpartum depression. The American Psychological Association places the figure at 14%. A recent study from the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that incidences of postpartum anxiety and OCD may be just as high. Clearly, the rates of postpartum mental illness are higher than many people realize!

While postpartum mental illness is sometimes treated as trivial—feelings of sadness after giving birth are often referred to as “baby blues”—it can be a very serious health condition. Most women who suffer from postpartum mental illness are not a danger to themselves or their children, but their symptoms can still be intense and painful. Women who struggle with postpartum mental health issues may have difficulty bonding with their child or trouble adjusting to motherhood. Their postpartum issues may also cause stress in their marriage or prevent them from returning to their jobs after giving birth.

That’s why understanding postpartum mental illness—and receiving prompt treatment, if you have it—is so critical.

What is postpartum mental illness?

During pregnancy and childbirth, a woman experiences many changes in her body and her brain chemistry. Hormonal fluctuations resulting from pregnancy and birth can sometimes trigger feelings of sadness or anxiety. New mothers are also frequently exhausted. They may experience elevated levels of stress due to the lifestyle changes and financial pressures that come with a new baby. Any of these factors can lead to mental health issues.

Postpartum mental illness can take many forms. The most well-known postpartum mental health condition is postpartum depression. However, some women also experience symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even psychosis during the days or weeks following childbirth. While some women recover from their postpartum mental illness quickly, when left untreated, others continue to experience symptoms of mental illness for months or even years after giving birth.

It’s important to recognize that having preexisting mental health conditions does not guarantee that you will experience postpartum issues! It’s true that having a history of mental illness places you at a higher risk of developing symptoms of mental illness after giving birth. But many women with preexisting mental health issues do not experience an increase in their symptoms during or after pregnancy.

By the same token, having no prior history of mental health problems does not mean that you are protected against developing postpartum mental illness. For women who have no previous experience with mental health issues, developing postpartum depression or anxiety can be shocking and confusing. Understanding the risks, symptoms, and treatments associated with postpartum mental illness can help ensure that you recognize what is happening and get help quickly if you need it.

The good news is that the vast majority of women recover as soon as they are diagnosed and treated. As long as treatment is administered promptly, most women go on to make a full recovery. But if a woman with postpartum mental illness is not properly treated, the outcome can be tragic. Knowing the symptoms of postpartum mental illness is key.

What you should know if you (or your partner) are pregnant

Often, women who have a history of mental health issues worry about the possibility of developing postpartum symptoms. But for the most part, the list of things you should do to ensure a healthy postpartum experience is the same, regardless of whether or not you already struggle with mental illness.

To help prevent health complications during or after pregnancy, make sure that you:

  • Arrange for appropriate prenatal care and attend all appointments or scans
  • Eat a healthy and nourishing diet
  • Get a moderate amount of exercise (unless your obstetrician advises you to avoid physical activity)
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs
  • Discuss any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking with your obstetrician
  • Get enough sleep each night
  • Try to avoid stress as much as possible

Women—with or without a history of mental health issues—should also speak to their doctor about any particular symptoms of postpartum mental illness they should watch out for.

Family members—such as spouses or grandparents—should also be educated on symptoms of postpartum mental illness. Proper education allows family members to take action if they observe a new mother experiencing a mental health crisis.

Symptoms of postpartum mental illness may include:

  • Feelings of guilt, regret, or profound sadness
  • Feeling like you are a bad mother
  • Difficulty bonding with your baby
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks (like showering or preparing food)
  • Changes in appetite (eating too much or not enough)
  • Changes in sleep (sleeping too much or trouble sleeping)
  • Feeling numb or hopeless
  • Intense anxiety or obsessive fears for your baby’s safety
  • Feeling the desire to run away from your baby or your family
  • Feeling the desire to harm yourself or your baby

If you experience any of these symptoms, notify your obstetrician immediately. If you have any thoughts of suicide or harming another person, it’s best to call an emergency hotline—such as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, below—or go to the hospital immediately.

What to do if you are diagnosed with postpartum mental illness

Women suffering from postpartum mental illness are often treated with antidepressants or other medications. They may also be referred to a therapist or counselor who will help them learn to manage their symptoms and assist them in working through the feelings of guilt, confusion, or stress that may surround their diagnosis.

Because postpartum mental health issues are so common, there are also a number of support groups and online resources for women and their families. Women with postpartum mental illness—and their partners—may find it comforting to speak to others who are experiencing the same thing.

The bottom line

Postpartum mental illness can affect anyone. Left untreated, the condition can be very serious. But most women respond well to treatment and eventually make a full recovery.

If you’re pregnant—or if you have recently given birth and you’re worried you may be struggling with postpartum symptoms—talk to your doctor right away about what postpartum resources are available to you.

If you have a friend or family member who is expecting a child soon, keep these symptoms in mind and remember to reach out to your friend if they seem to be struggling. Mental illness is often isolating. For women who are struggling with mental health issues while also trying to care for a newborn, the burden can be especially heavy. Remind your loved ones that there is no shame in needing extra help and care after giving birth.

Women with postpartum issues are not “bad mothers”. They’re simply women who are struggling with a health problem. They deserve support and medical care so they and their child can both thrive.

Need help dealing with postpartum mental health issues? Check out these resources!

Postpartum Support International

Mental Health America – Postpartum Disorders

National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 1-800-273-8255

Do you have any experience with postpartum mental illness? What advice would you give to a woman who is struggling with depression or anxiety after giving birth? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


1 thought on “Understanding postpartum mental illness”

  1. Thank you for this important article!

    As a perinatal mental health advocate, I encourage women and health professionals to educate themselves about all the perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADS). Apart from postpartum depression and anxiety, there are five other primary PMADS listed on Postpartum Support International’s website.  
    I was diagnosed with bipolar, peripartum onset (postpartum bipolar), a perinatal mood & anxiety disorder and form of bipolar disorder.
    My International Bipolar Foundation webinar about postpartum bipolar (and how it differs from postpartum psychosis) is receiving great feedback from mothers and those who care about them:

    Teresa Twomey is the author of “Understanding Postpartum Psychosis: A Temporary Madness ” and a brilliant postpartum psychosis advocate. She endorsed my book and included the following quote: “We often associate bipolar disorder (pre-existing or postpartum onset/diagnosis) with postpartum psychosis. Most women with postpartum psychosis may have an underlying bipolar disorder; not all of those with bipolar have psychosis, and not all of those with psychosis have bipolar.” 

    Thanks again for reading this, and Happy New Year!
    Dyane Harwood  
    Author, “Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder”
    Foreword by perinatal psychiatrist Dr. Carol Henshaw (Post Hill Press)
    Endorsed by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison and perinatal psychiatrists Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, Dr. Nancy Byatt, Dr. Verinder Sharma et al.


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