Perinatal anxiety and depression sapping the strength from mothers


By Brigid Glanville

Perinatal depression took Jo Munro to places in her head she’d never imagined she would go to.

Standing on the balcony of her home in north-west NSW, thinking “it would be so easy to jump off here”, the mother of three realised she needed help.

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Jo had an inkling during her pregnancy that something wasn’t right when she wasn’t excited at the upcoming birth of her third child, Barnaby.

Her baby was born six weeks before Jo and her husband Sinclair’s annual bull sale at their beef cattle stud in Bingara. It was a busy time, and Jo thought her feelings would pass once the sale was over.

They didn’t.

“I remember I had a fear of being left alone with him,” Jo says.

Barnaby was then diagnosed with whooping cough at eight weeks. Things started to unravel for Jo.

“My husband used to say ‘you’re just tired and emotional, you’re busy with three children'”, says Jo, “But I couldn’t get out of my pyjamas. I was sleeping in the cottage so the kids wouldn’t see me cry all day.”

Jo says she was critical of everyone around her and achieving the simplest tasks was near impossible. Those feelings were made worse not just by the geographic isolation of where Jo lived, but because she never told anyone how she was feeling.

“I felt like an actress on stage, everybody thought I was fine but at home I was a wreck.”

Eventually she begged her husband to take her away from the farm before she did something drastic. But when he took her to hospital, she was told to go home and rest.

Eventually after her extended family intervened she found a doctor who diagnosed her with post-natal depression and Jo spent three weeks in hospital in Sydney.

She says she’ll never forget the look on her husband’s face when the doctor said “you have a very sick wife.”

‘Start talking’

For so many women with perinatal depression, it’s difficult to work out if you’re sad or sick.

What is perinatal anxiety and depression?

  • Affects expecting and new parents
  • Almost 100,000 Australians affected each year
  • Results from biological, psychological and social factors
  • Treatment includes counselling and/or antidepressants
  • Early intervention and emotional support key

Source: Gidget Foundation

A lack of awareness around the common condition means symptoms are often dismissed as “baby blues”.

Perinatal anxiety and depression affects one in 10 women, but many doctors believe the figure would be higher if more women talked about their experiences.

Today, the Gidget Foundation launches a national program called “Start Talking” providing free online counselling services to help people like Jo in regional areas.

The pressure to be the ‘perfect mother’

Geographic isolation isn’t the only risk factor for perinatal depression; another common contributor is social expectations of how mothers should feel and act.

For me, the pressure to breast-feed my child brought crippling shame and guilt that spiralled into serious depression.

I had difficulties with breast-feeding my first child that returned with my second baby, Clementine. She was hospitalised because she was losing weight but still I insisted on breast-feeding her. Eventually I was forced to switch to formula; I knew the baby would be ok, but I couldn’t stop the self loathing and guilt.

I got to the point where the thought of self-harm was a relief. Finally, I admitted I needed help. I found professional help and began taking antidepressants.

I look back now and wonder why I put myself through all of that, the breastfeeding pain in particular. Where does that pressure comes from?

It comes from antenatal classes, it comes from advice from midwives, it comes from society, it comes from within yourself.

I now know “breast isn’t best” if it puts the mother’s and baby’s health at risk.

Competition between mothers doesn’t help

The pressure to be a perfect mother is something mother of three Kerryn Baird warns against.

“The competition among mothers is terrible,” says Kerryn, the wife of former NSW Premier Mike Baird.

Kerryn is appalled when she sees photos of celebrities who’re talking about how they “got their pre-baby body back” but never reveal the help they have at home.

“These women are just doing more damage to everyday mums who may not be coping.”

Kerryn had post-natal depression with her first child Laura, 21 years ago. While Laura was an easy baby, Kerryn battled mastitis, a common breast-feeding issue, which spiralled into depression.

“I was falling into a dark vortex, wondering ‘Is this who I am?’

“I didn’t want to do anything, doing the dishes was difficult.

“The baby would go to sleep, I would slip down the wall outside her room and cry.”

Kerryn retreated from socialising; when friends came over, she’d sit in her bedroom crying.

At the time, her husband was going through pre-selection for the seat of Manly, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

“Mike had no idea, he knew I’d changed but didn’t know why.”

Women most at risk

  • Perfectionist personality
  • Emotional, financial, work or housing stress
  • Limited social support
  • Aged under 18 or over 35
  • Personal or family history of mental health problems
  • Difficult birth
  • Migrant and refugee women
  • Rural and remote women
  • Recent bereavement
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders
  • Culturally and linguistically diverse women

Source: Gidget Foundation

‘You’re not a bad mother’

When Kerryn took Laura for her six-month check-up, the community health nurse asked, “how are you?” Kerryn burst into tears. The nurse sent Kerryn to her doctor where she was diagnosed with post-natal depression.

“My GP said to me, matter of factly, you’re not a bad mother, you’re sick and you need to get this sorted.

“I was so relieved — this thing that was sapping the life out of me had a name.”

What fathers can do

Dr Jill Gordon is a GP who specialises in mental health and treats many women with perinatal depression and anxiety.

Her advice to fathers is, “Don’t reassure with empty platitudes, listening is vital. Do anything you can to help even if you can’t fully understand what the mother is going through.”

At the same time it’s important that they don’t try to “fix it”. Recognising the problem is the critical part.

Language is critical

We can all play a part in spreading awareness around perinatal depression and anxiety. While stigma around mental illness is finally starting to fall away, prejudice remains a danger to the health of many women.

Even as I considered self-harm I was thinking, “Isn’t cutting yourself something only attention-seeking teenagers do?”

We have to challenge exactly that type of ignorance.

It starts with talking about it just as freely as we would talk about any other illness.

As my husband said to me, “we should talk about depression in exactly the same way we talk about having a broken leg. The more we do that, the more the stigma will go.”

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