Mental Health Among Birthing Parents: Addressing Stigmas

Like physical health, maintaining mental health is an important part of keeping healthy. Yet, stigma around mental health is not unusual, and mothers may be more aware of social pressures. They may feel shame and guilt about seeking mental health support, even though it is common.

Among mothers and other birthing parents,* one in seven experience what was formerly known as postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is now called peripartum depression because it may begin during pregnancy. But only half of moms having those symptoms of depression seek treatment.

Mothers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color are even more likely to have peripartum depression. Black moms in particular have rates of depression that are sometimes triple the rates of white moms. However, they’re able to access care at only half the rate of white moms due to systemic racism and barriers.

Depression and anxiety are common in motherhood, especially in the early years when children need constant attention. Both sleep deprivation and hormonal changes can make mental health challenges more likely.

Many moms worry that it’s selfish to prioritize their mental health. But moms who seek counseling and medical treatment have more emotional strength for parenting and their relationships.

Parenthood and Mental Health: Common Myths

Mothers experience feelings of shame around depression and anxiety because of social expectations. Our society conditions mothers to think they should be caring for others, not in need of help themselves.

Of course, mothers may be balancing many caregiving, financial, and job demands. Plus, they may feel pressure to put on a “brave face,” rather than talk about their emotions in front of their children.

In addition, popular culture, as well as family and friends, can paint motherhood as a fulfilling, joyful task. Moms who have difficulty balancing motherhood and mental health may think they’re not “good mothers” as a result. In fact, research shows children do better in all regards when their parents seek help for mental health.

Hispanic, Black, and younger women are all more likely to think feel like they should suffer in silence. A survey of moms in America found that Black and Hispanic mothers were less likely to pursue treatment than white mothers.

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Peripartum (Postpartum) Depression and Postpartum Psychosis

Most women experience “baby blues” with the lack of sleep and stresses that come with caring for a newborn. Women may cry easily and feel anxious or irritable.

When symptoms of depression and anxiety last longer than two weeks and affect your ability to function, that’s not just baby blues. That’s peripartum (postpartum) depression.

Peripartum depression is depression that occurs during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. Changes in hormones play a role.

Other contributors include feeling overwhelmed by newfound childcare responsibilities and lack of sleep. Women taking care of one or more young children have less time to take part in mental health boosting activities. These include seeing friends, exercising, or going for a relaxing walk.

Experts now view postpartum depression more broadly and use the term “peripartum depression,” because most postpartum depression actually starts in pregnancy. Peripartum depression can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. But if untreated, symptoms can continue beyond a year. The highest risk period for peripartum depression is within the first year after delivery but the risk period may extend beyond that.

The symptoms of postpartum depression include:

  • Feeling sad.
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Feeling worthless or guilty.
  • Difficulty bonding with your baby.
  • Inability to sleep.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Increased fatigue.
  • Anxiety.
  • Fear of harming the baby or failing as a mother.

Peripartum depression is different from postpartum psychosis, which is rarer, occurring in about four in 1,000 women. Symptoms of postpartum psychosis include hallucinations, delusions, unusual behaviors, and extreme agitation.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health Throughout Motherhood

For yourself, and also for your children and loved ones, your mental health matters. When you feel calm, rested, and happy, you can be a better support for those around you.

To protect your mental health in motherhood, remember that everyone needs a break. You can leave your child or children with a babysitter or family member and come back recharged. Take time to fit in exercise and sleep, and let others know when you’re feeling sad or worried.

If you have symptoms of depression or anxiety that last beyond two weeks, talk to your doctor. They can recommend traditional therapy, support groups, medications, or lifestyle changes to help you feel like yourself again. On the spectrum of care options, there is also a mother-baby intensive outpatient program where baby can accompany mom to sessions 9 hours per week.

*Not all birthing parents identify as women or mothers. At UPMC Magee we interchangeably use the terms mother and birthing parent. We have a long history supporting women and have a commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community. Transmasculine birthing parents are welcome at Magee.

Sources

American Psychiatric Association. What is postpartum depression? Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression during and after pregnancy. Link

Karen Ertel et al. Maternal depression in the United States. Journal of Women's Health. Link

Lori Miller Case. The effects of depression on children and families. Parents. Link

Office on Women's Health. Postpartum Depression. Link

About UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital

For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long-renowned for its services to women and babies but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Our patient-first approach ensures you and your loved ones get the care you need. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and our NICU is one of the largest in the country. Our network of care – from imaging centers to hospital services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland, giving you a chance to get the expert care you need close to home. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes UPMC Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.