BY ANNE LORA SCAGLIUSI | May 25, 2021
"Jen Schwartz, mental health advocate and CEO of Motherhood Understood, first experienced perinatal depression a day after giving birth. “The biggest red flag was that I was having scary thoughts about wanting to get hurt or sick so I could go back to the hospital and not have to take care of my baby,” she says. “I had no interest in my son. I thought I had made a huge mistake becoming a mother and I couldn’t understand why I was failing at something that I believed was supposed to come naturally and that all other women were so good at.”
According to the World Health Organization, about 10 percent of pregnant women and 13 percent of new mothers will experience a mental disorder, the main one being depression. Without appropriate intervention, poor maternal mental health can have long term and adverse implications for not just these women, but their children and families, too. In most cases, however, women may not be aware of the help available or even that they might need it.
“Most of the time, they mistakenly think they are failing at parenting,” says Wendy Davis, executive director of Postpartum Support International (PSI). “They don't realize they are going through a temporary, treatable experience that many others have gone through.”
To find out more during World Mental Health Awareness Month, Vogue speaks to a range of global mental health experts and women who have experienced perinatal depression.
What is perinatal depression?
"Perinatal depression is the experience of depression that begins during pregnancy [prenatal depression] or after the baby is born [postpartum depression]. Most people have heard of perinatal depression, but what’s equally common for mums to experience is perinatal anxiety either separately, or with depression,” explains Canadian therapist Kate Borsato. Perinatal depression does not discriminate. “Some people are surprised when I tell them that I experienced postpartum anxiety, because of my job as a therapist for mums. But mental illness doesn’t really care who you are or what you know.”
While anyone can experience it, there are some known risk factors that increase women’s chances of developing mental health difficulties in the perinatal period. According to Australia-based social worker and founder of Mama Matters, Fiona Weaver, these include a “previous history of depression or anxiety, those who have limited support networks, have experienced birth or pregnancy trauma, infertility or who may be genetically predisposed to it.”
What are the signs and symptoms to look out for?
Symptoms differ for everyone, and may include feelings of anger, anxiety, fatigue, neglecting personal hygiene and health or surroundings, fear and/or guilt, lack of interest in the baby, change in appetite and sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating/making decisions, loss of enjoyment or enthusiasm for anything, and possible thoughts of harming the baby or oneself.
Women can also develop postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, and postpartum psychosis. Copenhagen-based content creator Clara Aatoft was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and psychosis months after becoming a new mum. “For the first three months, I didn't sleep at all. I was constantly aware of my daughter’s needs. She was later diagnosed with colic. When I gave up breastfeeding and switched to the bottle, my depression and psychosis went full-blown.” She continues, “I started thinking that my daughter was a robot that someone placed a chip inside at the hospital. I attempted suicide and ended up in the psychiatric ward. I’m very well now, still medicated on antidepressants. But my daughter and I have the best relationship.”