When we think of mental health risks for women during pregnancy or post-partum, depression is what typically comes to mind.
We now screen for depression during pre-natal exams as well as at post partum baby checks and many women and health care practitioners know some of the warning signs to keep in mind.
I have written in the past about this condition and the importance of seeking help when it’s needed.
Pregnancy and the post-partum period are times when a woman is most vulnerable to develop or relapse into a mental illness. Extreme hormone shifts affect brain chemistry as well as other body systems and often trigger symptoms. In addition, the enormous life change, lack of sleep, and the stress of becoming a parent can increase susceptibility to a mood disorder.
A recent study of new mothers in the metro Vancouver area found anxiety to be even more prevalent than depression during pregnancy and the post-partum period. In fact, this study out of UBC found anxiety to be three to four times more common than depression in this group.
After a mental health questionnaire and in-depth interviews, 16 per cent of pregnant women and 17 per cent of new mothers could be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder compared with four and five percent with depression.
The difference in prevalence is somewhat surprising and points to an important mental health issue we haven’t been paying enough attention.
Most new parents experience some anxiety – worry over the baby’s health and safety or future issues such as saving for their education or being a good parent. An anxiety disorder is more than regular parental worrying. Anxious thoughts are intrusive and often defy reason.
An anxious mother may become obsessed with the idea she may deliberately hurt her child or could fixate on avoiding germs to the extent that she isolates herself and goes to extreme measures to ensure cleanliness.
Anxiety like this can make it very difficult to function, can interfere with the mother-child bond, and can become a safety concern for both if they are not addressed.
Very often, cognitive behaviour therapy can really help to alleviate anxiety and change thought patterns. Unfortunately, because there is often a lot of shame associated with negative feelings in parenthood, many do not seek out treatment. When therapy is not enough, medication can also be effective for those with an post-partum anxiety disorder.
Regular screening for anxiety during pre and post-natal health visits could go a long way.
If you are expecting or adjusting to a new baby and believe your feelings of anxiety or depression go beyond what you’d expect as a normal part of adjusting to parenthood, speak with your doctor about it. Effective treatments are available.
Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.