Understanding Maternal Depression

The role of motherhood is complex and profound. Psychology and development experts agree — the role of the mother is critical to child development, for better or worse. This role is also packed full of societal expectations and emotional milestones for an individual to navigate. 

From the moment the pregnancy test confirms impending birth, an individual begins to conjure expectations they have of their own for this experience as well as what significant others, family members, friends, and society will hold for this new mother. While becoming a mother can be one of the most joyful and fulfilling passages of a woman’s life, it can also sometimes be rife with challenge and negative emotions, too. 

Maternal depression is a condition that is possible throughout all stages of becoming a mother, from pregnancy to postpartum. The symptoms of maternal depression at any stage are very similar to those of depression in any other adult. However, maternal depression comes with the added complexity of being deeply intertwined with another fetal or infant life that is totally dependent on the mental, emotional, and physical health of the mother. Additionally, maternal depression may be circumstantial and caused by the unique hormones and/or experience that are inherent to child bearing. 

Many women face an unfortunate stigma that lumps together the symptoms of maternal depression with general discontent or discomfort that pregnancy or childbirth causes, but it is important to distinguish that while some of the symptoms may overlap superficially, maternal depression is a diagnosable and serious condition that should not be dismissed or ignored. 

There are some identifiable risk factors that increase the possibility of a new mother developing maternal depression, such as:

  • Pre-existing disposition to depression or anxiety
  • Lack of familial support or adequate prenatal and postnatal care
  • Substance abuse 
  • Poor family or partner relationship
  • Stressful life circumstances
  • Maternal age less than twenty-four years old
  • Unplanned or unwanted pregnancy
  • Low socioeconomic status

Maternal depression, particularly if left untreated, has a significant impact on not only the mother, but the child’s or children’s development, and other close relationships such as the mother’s family members or partner. It can add stress to an already stressful situation and it can cause a breakdown in communication at a time when communicating effectively between partners and caregivers is of utmost importance.

According to the New York State Department of Health, “A thorough review of this research by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine finds that maternal depression endangers young children’s cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioral development, as well as their learning, and physical and mental health over the long term.”

Therefore we can easily see the importance of supporting mothers who may struggle with this condition at every point through their maternal journey and beyond, if necessary. 

Post-partum depression is usually experienced within the first two to three months after giving birth, though onset of symptoms may begin immediately following delivery. This condition is different from what we commonly call the “Baby Blues,” which is a form of short term maternal depression identified by mood swings, excessive fatigue, sadness, and overwhelm during the first two weeks following delivery. 

Post-partum depression is more serious form of maternal depression, persisting long after the initial two weeks following birth. The most severe of these symptoms include extreme paranoia, anxiety manifested as bizarre thoughts and fears, including obsessive thought of harm to the baby, as well as thoughts of death or suicide. 

Post-partum psychosis is a severe mental disorder. It may begin immediately following birth or develop slowly, over time, as post-partum depression is left untreated. Individuals with a history of bipolar disorder, other mood disorders, or with a family history of post-partum depression are significantly at a higher risk for developing this disorder. The greatest risks associated with this disorder are delusions and thoughts of harm focused toward the infant child. Post-partum psychosis may develop anytime within the first year of giving birth. 

It may be difficult for loved ones to understand such a joyful time of welcoming a new baby simultaneously presenting challenges with these types of symptoms experienced by the mother, but if this is the case, it must not be ignored. Mothers experiencing these thoughts or feelings should seek immediate support from family members as well as professional help when necessary. 

It is likely a new mother who is experiencing any of these symptoms may also feel guilt or shame associated with her symptoms. This is where family members and partners can help the most by being vigilant, checking in with the new mother often, and offering support when needed. 

Through proper support systems and sometimes additional treatment such as medication or therapy, mothers are able to reclaim their maternal experience and bonding with their children, avoiding long term damage and setbacks for the whole family. Even mothers without a strong partner or family support can seek professional help by speaking with their OBGYN or primary care doctor as well as looking for support groups in their communities for new mothers through their local hospitals. 

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