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5 of the Most Common Maternal Mental Health Disorders—And How To Ask For Help

Mother holding a baby's hand
It's time for more conversations about postpartum depression

By Paige Glidden

During TheBlueDotProject's Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, it's time to focus on the mental health of mothers—especially during a life-changing pandemic. The most recognized maternal mental health disorder is postpartum depression, but there are other common mental health concerns to look out for.

Juggling societal and familial expectations is a heavy burden for anyone. But when you add a new baby into the mix (during a pandemic!), it can become overwhelming. Sleepless nights, hormones, and new emotions all feed into overwhelm after the birth of a baby, not to mention that maternal anxiety and depression are the most common complications of childbirth, impacting up to 1 in 5 women.

The first week of May serves as Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, bringing to light the challenges that moms face and the reality of postpartum depression and anxiety. Maternal Mental Health Disorders (MMHDs) include a range of disorders and symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Although often referred to more commonly as "postpartum depression," there are several different types of postpartum mental health disorders that affect new moms.

Symptoms can occur during pregnancy and/or the postpartum period (together often referred to as the perinatal period). These illnesses can affect anyone—and they are far more common than you'd think. Although an estimated one in five women have a maternal mental health disorder, most cases go undiagnosed, leading experts to believe that the number should be much higher. New parents also experience the baby blues, which is not formally considered an MMHD—up to 80 percent of women suffer from this in the initial two to three days postpartum, according to Bridget Frese Hutchens, Ph.D., CNM, RN, CNL, PHN.

What's worse is that only 30 percent of women who screen positive for depression or anxiety seek or receive treatment. When left untreated these disorders can cause devastating consequences for moms, babies, families and communities. The good news is that risk for both depression and anxiety can be reduced (and sometimes even prevented), and with treatment, women can recover.

It can be hard to identify some of the symptoms of postpartum mental health challenges, but it's worth paying attention to. Here are three types of maternal mental health conditions to look out for:

Common Maternal Mental Health Disorders

1. Postpartum Depression

Pregnancy and Postpartum Depression (PPD) is a mood disorder that can begin during pregnancy or in the first three weeks after having a baby, according to ACOG, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Symptoms can range from mild sadness, trouble concentrating, or difficulty finding joy in once-loved activities to severe depression, and mothers with pre-existing depression prior to or during pregnancy are more likely to experience postpartum depression, according to The Blue Dot Project. While there is no single cause for PPD, experts attribute it to the drop in hormones estrogen and progesterone following childbirth and general stressors which increase during pregnancy and the postpartum period. With proper mental health care, PPD is treatable and the risk of severe depression can also be prevented.

2. Dysthymia, Persistent Depressive Disorder

Dysthymia is defined as a low mood occurring for at least two years, along with at least two other symptoms of depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with dysthymia may lose interest in normal daily activities, feel hopeless, or have overall feelings of inadequacy. Women with pre-existing dysthymia may be at a higher risk for severe symptoms/depression during the perinatal period, according to The Blue Dot Project.

3. Pregnancy and Postpartum General Anxiety

It might seem normal to worry before or after having  a baby, but if your anxiety is more than just the baby blues and you can't get these worries out of your brain, you might be suffering from pregnancy or postpartum related generalized anxiety . Around 10 percent of women will develop anxiety during pregnancy or after childbirth, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Anxiety is treatable during pregnancy and postpartum.

Symptoms often include restlessness, racing heartbeat, inability to sleep, extreme worry about the "what if's"—questions like "what if my baby experiences SIDS" or "what if my baby has autism," and extreme worry about not being a good parent or being able to provide for her family, according to The Blue Dot Project."

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