Shining a Light on Women’s Mental Health: Combating Perinatal Depression

By Jennifer Pitman, LCSW

March is Women’s History Month, a dedicated time to recognize the many incredible contributions women have made, and continue to make, in American history, society and culture. It’s also an opportunity to focus on women’s health and the unique experience of being a woman. 

According to the Office on Women’s Health 1 in 5 women will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. Some of the most common mental health disorders experienced by women include:

  1. Anxiety Disorders – Women are twice as likely to experience an Anxiety Disorder as men. This includes Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Panic Disorder among others.  
  2. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – Women are much more likely than men to experience sexual and physical violence during their lifetime. This leaves women at an increased risk for PTSD as well as other mental health disorders. 
  3. Eating Disorders – Women report feeling significant societal pressure and expectations when it comes to weight, which may contribute to the high prevalence of Eating Disorders among women. About 90% of those with Anorexia and 65% of those with Bulimia are women. 
  4. Depressive Disorders – Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders affecting women. Women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. Perinatal Depression, in particular, has a significant impact on the well being of children and families. 

Perinatal Depression (PD), also known as postpartum depression, is defined by symptoms of depression during pregnancy and in the year postpartum. The Office on Women’s Health reports that 1 in 9 mothers experience Perinatal Depression. PD does not have a specific cause and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, ethnicity, income or culture. Research suggests that biological factors as well as genetic and environmental factors contribute to one’s risk. There are some factors that we know increase your likelihood of having Perinatal Depression including a history of depression or a family history of depression and a history of trauma. Additionally, other life stressors such as complications during delivery, living in poverty, low social support, being transgender or gender non-conforming or having a child with special needs can contribute to individual risk. The transitions to pregnancy and motherhood alone are extremely stressful. Your body changes, your needs change and you are in charge of a tiny human being who needs you to do quite literally everything for their survival.

Know the Symptoms

Due to the drastic hormonal shifts during and after pregnancy, most women experience what is known as the “baby blues” during the initial postpartum period. This is considered a normal part of the transition from pregnancy to motherhood and includes sadness, crying and feeling overwhelmed but will typically dissipate after two weeks. Perinatal Depression is a major depressive episode that lasts much longer. Symptoms include irritability, intense sadness, frequent crying, lack of motivation, social isolation, fatigue and lack of interest in one’s children or oneself. In severe cases women may have thoughts of harming themselves or their child. This can occur during pregnancy or anytime in the year postpartum. Experiencing any of these symptoms persistently means it is time to seek help. If left untreated Perinatal Depression can last for months or years. Furthermore, untreated severe or chronic PD is associated with negative effects on women’s health, their relationships with their partner and child and with the development of their child. This is why identifying PD and seeking treatment as early as possible is so important. 

In recent years, there has been much more research done on Perinatal Depression and ways to connect women with appropriate treatment. For this reason it is now recommended by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists that OBs screen new mothers for Depression at their 6-week follow up after birth. Pediatricians are also encouraged to screen new mothers for Depression in order to connect them with help as early as possible. This ensures the best outcomes for both mothers and their children. 

Begin Your Healing Journey

If you notice any of the symptoms above, the best place to begin is by sharing your feelings with someone you trust. This could be your partner, a relative or a friend. Women report that bringing their symptoms into the open offers a feeling of relief and is a great first step in healing. Next, speak to your doctor. They can assist in connecting you with appropriate treatment or support in the community. Treatment options include support groups, individual therapy and medication. 

If you are ready to pursue treatment here are some other helpful resources:

The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline 1-833-TLC-MAMA

This organization has counselors 24 hours a day, 7 days per week that can offer support and connect you to resources.

Postpartum Support International 1-800-944-4PPD

This organization will connect you with appropriate support in your community.

Be There For Your Loved One

If you notice that a loved one is experiencing symptoms of Perinatal Depression your presence will be vital to their recovery. Let them know that you are there to listen. Offer to help with household tasks or to watch the baby so that they can care for themselves or rest. 

Find Your Network

When dealing with Perinatal Depression you are often caught in a vicious cycle. The more you struggle to cope with daily life, the more guilt and shame you experience and the less likely you are to connect with others. Or maybe you try to seek help from your family, but you are met with skepticism about what you are experiencing and discouraged from seeking treatment. Connecting with other women who have gone through similar experiences can be so powerful for women who feel that they are alone or have to hide their symptoms. Knowing that you have people you can rely on who truly understand can be life changing.  If you are lucky enough to have supportive friends and family members, do not be afraid to ask for help so that you can take care of yourself. This benefits not only you, but your child and those around you. 

Barriers to Receiving Support

Stigma around Perinatal Depression is one of the leading reasons that women do not seek support. When there is a pregnancy or birth we all expect that this is a time full of joy and excitement for the mother or mother-to-be. Women imagine that a natural maternal instinct will instantly kick in. When these expectations are not met or a woman notices that her friends are not feeling the intense feelings that she is experiencing, this can breed a deep sense of guilt and shame. Some feel angry with themselves or feel like a failure. Rather than tell anyone that they are “a bad mom” many women isolate themselves and end up feeling completely alone. 

Cultural stigma can also be a barrier, particularly for women of color, to pursuing treatment. Some cultures discourage mental health treatment and women may receive the message that they should just “push through” or focus on being grateful for their child. 

It is difficult for women who are feeling fatigued, overwhelmed  and a lack of motivation to pursue treatment on their own. For those who take the step toward finding treatment, some may give up when they encounter long wait lists to see a therapist or lack insurance coverage. 

Shining a light on women’s mental health is vital not only for women, but for their families and communities as well. There has been tremendous progress in addressing the health needs of women, particularly around screening for Depression. However, more can be done to ensure that women do not fall through the cracks and to take the burden off of women who are already struggling. If you believe you are battling Perinatal Depression, remember this is not your fault and you do not need to hide. With treatment and support, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.