Perinatal mental health is the umbrella term for all mental health conditions around pregnancy, including the year after birth. You may also hear terms such as prenatal/antenatal depression and postnatal depression (PND) mentioned, which refer to specific times during your pregnancy or after the birth of your baby.
Mental health conditions, in general, are spoken about much more freely than they used to be, with people now being openly encouraged to talk about their feelings and discuss what is troubling them. As mental health conditions are now known to increase during pregnancy and in the postnatal period, there have been improvements in NHS maternity services. You may find that there are dedicated mental health services or midwifery teams, if you need them, in your local area.
Your mental health during pregnancy
Women are encouraged to discuss their mental health with their midwife during pregnancy and postnatally, as often the onset of mental health conditions can be both sudden and debilitating during this time.
This blog will focus on women’s mental health during pregnancy.
There are several reasons why some women may develop mental health conditions during pregnancy. It may be a single cause or a combination of several factors. During pregnancy, many hormonal and physical changes can temporarily alter how you feel and affect your mental health.
What we do know is that if you have one or more of the following risk factors, your chances of developing a mental health condition increase.
Risk factors for mental health:
- Lack of social and family support, feelings of loneliness or feeling unsupported by those around you.
- Chemical imbalances in the brain which you can’t control. These may need therapy or medication to help you to stabilise your mood more effectively.
- Having had a previous history of one or more episodes of mental health problems or personality disorders. This includes issues with anxiety and depression.
- If you have had a difficult or abusive childhood. This includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as being neglected as a child.
- Lack of access to specialist mental health or related services that support mental health during your life when you have needed this input.
- Previous post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by one or more traumatic life events in the past.
Remember that just because you have one or more of the risk factors above it does not mean you will develop a mental health condition in pregnancy, it just means it increases the chances of it happening to you.
Being aware of your own mental health
Raising awareness is a positive step towards you or others recognising that there could be a problem. If you have had mental health conditions previously, before becoming pregnant, you or others close to you may recognise some of the warning signs that you are becoming unwell. In fact, some women are often alerted by recognising triggers that they are becoming unwell.
It would be beneficial to talk to your midwife, GP or another healthcare professional that you trust as soon as you recognise any signs, as this will enable your maternity team to help you access support networks that can help.
If you haven’t previously had any mental health issues, the signs you are becoming unwell might be confusing and you may try to ignore them. Try to listen to your mind and body if you think they are trying to tell you something.
Self-help measures during pregnancy or after you’ve had your baby:
Exercise has been proven to help relieve stress, tension and improve your mental health. It can be difficult to motivate yourself during pregnancy or when you have a new baby if you’re feeling tired. If restrictions allow it, ask a friend to join you - maintaining social distancing - or look for pregnancy exercise groups online or, if Covid-safe, in your local area. Try to choose an exercise or activity that you enjoy doing so you are more likely to stick with it.
Be open and don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Tell friends and family that you trust how you are feeling. This may feel even harder to do during a pandemic yet, now more than ever, technology offers plenty of ways to reach out.
Seek help sooner rather than later. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Your midwife or GP will have plenty of advice and will be able to signpost you towards accessing the relevant resources to help you.
In summary, pregnancy can be a trigger for pre-existing mental health conditions to resurface or for mental health conditions to develop for the first time. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so be open and talk to people who can help you address any problems that arise.