Post-partum depression is more common than you think

by Marc Wilson / 03 January, 2018

As many as a quarter of mothers suffer post-partum depression. Photo/Getty Images

Sleep disturbance and lack of energy can be signs of depression in new parents.

If the age of 25 is taken as the point at which our capacity for adult decision-making is fully developed, then I wasn’t a complete adult by the time I became a father at 22 – to twin girls, no less.

After their birth, my university grades improved dramatically, because I didn’t have time to muck about any more, but I also can’t remember the first two months. However, I do recall averaging two hours’ sleep a night and asking neighbours if we could use their washing line to dry some of our vast number of nappies.

In retrospect, I wasn’t old enough to miss adulthood, because I didn’t really know what it should be like, but it’s part of popular wisdom that your life changes dramatically and forever after you become a parent. Men (and maybe some women) find this particularly difficult – an existential crisis of what could have been.

Our cultures tell us that women are expected to look forward to motherhood. And it’s not Dad’s tummy that strangers want to pat. Childbirth is focused on the needs of the mothers-to-be for the very good reason that they’re the ones who physically give birth. Having fathers at the birth is a relatively recent development.

Perhaps this is why we know a bit more about what it’s like for women to become mothers. For example, maybe a quarter of them experience post-partum depression. This wasn’t officially recognised until 1994, when the specifier “with post-partum onset” was added to the diagnosis of major depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Or rather, mothers who became depressed after having a baby were “just” depressed. In the diagnostic context, “post-partum” means within four weeks of giving birth.

In the DSM-5, released in 2013, this specifier had been subtly changed to “with peripartum onset”, to recognise that the depression can start before birth. And there’s still debate about whether the plus- or minus-four-week window is big enough, because not all women who get depressed after childbirth do so within that bracket.

Major depression obviously means depressed mood for most of the time for several weeks at least. But it can also mean anhedonia, loss of enjoyment of things you normally enjoy. These primary symptoms also come with a package of sleep or appetite disturbance, lethargy or sometimes agitation, impaired concentration and feelings of worthlessness.

International reviews suggest maybe as many as a quarter of mothers suffer post-partum depression. Which isn’t to say all women who experience it are diagnosed or get treatment.

Many women attribute what they’re experiencing to having a new and vocal member of the family. Look at those symptoms: sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating and lack of energy. You’re a parent, so of course you feel that way.

Well, no, maybe not, if that’s how it’s been for weeks. Our public health system has specialist maternal mental-health services around the country, with staff whose job is supporting mothers experiencing mental-health problems that started sometime up to about nine months after birth. If these symptoms sound familiar to you, or to someone you love, ask your GP about getting help.

And it’s not just Mum. Men get depressed, too, and maybe one in 10 new dads. Of course, blokes are worse at paying attention to what’s going on with them, and rubbish at talking about it or asking for help.

Many men also misattribute what they’re feeling to the life change or sleep deprivation. Maybe they think there’s something wrong with them because they can’t hack it? Maybe they don’t want to burden their equally knackered partner about it? Come on, lads, ask for help.

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


How to know if you are being sexually harassed at work
89757 2018-04-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

How to know if you are being sexually harassed at …

by The Listener

The Employment Relations Act is very clear about what constitutes sexual harassment in New Zealand.

Read more
Some corner of an English field
89918 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z History

Some corner of an English field

by Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade visits a village in rural England and finds the war-time deaths of her uncle and his two Kiwi-airmen mates have not been forgotten.

Read more
The brain researcher who was diagnosed with a brain tumour
89704 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Profiles

The brain researcher who was diagnosed with a brai…

by Clare de Lore

Few people could be better suited than Louise Nicholson to deal with a brain tumour diagnosis.

Read more
Discovering the majesty and fragility of New Zealand kauri
88483 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Environment

Discovering the majesty and fragility of New Zeala…

by Josie Stanford

A twilight tour in Waipoua Forest highlights the majesty, and the fragility, of our mighty kauri.

Read more
Sweet Country – movie review
89842 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Movies

Sweet Country – movie review

by Peter Calder

An Australian western with Sam Neill is a searing masterpiece.

Read more
The role that diet plays in causing gout is smaller than people think
89404 2018-04-22 00:00:00Z Health

The role that diet plays in causing gout is smalle…

by Nicky Pellegrino

It's often said that diet is the most important cause of gout, but for most people changing it won't lower uric acid levels enough to stop the pain.

Read more
15 and snapping the stars: The new generation of music media
88446 2018-04-21 00:00:00Z Music

15 and snapping the stars: The new generation of m…

by Sharon Stephenson

Wellington teenager McKenzie Jennings-Gruar is part of a new-generation media pack on the music festival circuit.

Read more
Moa Please! Give Anika Moa a prime-time spot on TV right now
89886 2018-04-21 00:00:00Z Television

Moa Please! Give Anika Moa a prime-time spot on TV…

by Diana Wichtel

It’s time the tornado of Seven Sharp and Anika Moa Unleashed was set free on prime time.

Read more