Mom, look after your mental health

by Nicole Canin
Mental health conditions during pregnancy & postpartum
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Many moms have moments when they feel overwhelmed or even doubt their ability to take care of their baby. These feelings are very common and, with support and encouragement, can often be overcome.

However, sometimes the experience can start to become unmanageable and may be an indication of something a little more worrying.

READ MORE: Mental health during motherhood

Mental health conditions during pregnancy & postpartum

The truth is that 1 in 3 South African mothers suffer from postnatal mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or trauma.

These conditions are serious and not only have an impact on a mother’s ability to cope with motherhood and life in general, but research has shown that feeling this way can also have a detrimental impact on baby’s development. The good news is that they can be treated or managed successfully, especially if help is sought early.

We know that the impact of mental illness can build over time, placing mom and baby under increasing stress and risk. As mothers, we need to be speaking about this. Rather than judging ourselves (or others), we need to understand what mental illness looks like so that we can identify it and put the right support in place.

Overcoming the stigma of mental health struggles is essential. The sooner that a mom seeks help, the better. In order to do this, we need to reduce the shame attached to needing assistance and support. Many women feel that they should just be able to “cope”. Sadly, they often suffer alone because they don’t feel able to discuss these challenges openly or look for professional help.

Mental health during pregnancy

Mental illness can start in pregnancy, especially if the pregnancy isn’t planned or wanted.  Moms who experience violence, unemployment or an unstable home life are also more at risk. It’s critical that moms seek out support and treatment as soon as possible in their pregnancy.

Many women worry about taking medication during pregnancy but health professionals can guide them regarding which medications have been proven to be safe. Research shows that it’s actually more risky NOT to get help. For example, untreated depression has been shown to have consequences for baby’s growth and development during the pregnancy.

Mental health after having a child

Postnatal mental health conditions usually begin in the first 3 weeks to 3 months after birth. They can, however, start at any time during the first year. Women with pre-existing mental health issues, stressful life circumstances, or those who experienced mental, emotional or sexual abuse in their childhood may be more at risk.

This is also true for those moms who have limited support systems or challenging/absent maternal figures. Depression can also manifest or worsen from a lack of sufficient sleep as exhaustion can contribute to feelings of helplessness, despair and overwhelm. It’s very important to get help if you’re not getting enough sleep as this can also cause a lack of perspective. Reach out and share your challenges so you can find and put in place the correct support. If you’re parenting alone, talk to a friend, family member or health professional who won’t minimise what you are going through.

Postnatal depression & the signs to watch out for

Postnatal depression is a specific type of depression that many parents experience after having a baby. It’s much more common that people realise, and can also affect fathers and partners.

Symptoms include:

  • depressed mood
  • lack of interest in activities during the day
  • changes in appetite
  • feelings of worthlessness and guilt.

In really serious cases, postnatal depression can cause a mom to feel suicidal. She may feel useless if she feels she cannot take care of her baby, believing that her baby (and family) will be better off without her. Very depressed moms may also be at risk of harming their baby.

These feelings are an emergency and urgent, immediate action needs to be taken to protect both mom and baby.

Is it postnatal depression or postpartum anxiety?

While most moms experience some anxiety after giving birth, these feelings are usually temporary and settle over time. When the fear starts to become extreme and constant anxious thoughts or feelings make it difficult to manage the day, this may suggest a mental health condition called postnatal anxiety.

Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The experience of trauma can also impact a mother’s state of mind. If there has been a trauma in the months before or after birth, moms may be at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Moms who have had traumatic birthspremature infants or babies with medical conditions are particularly at risk. PTSD symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance or difficulty concentrating. Mental health during pregnancy baby yum yum - BabyYumYum

Signs of postpartum psychosis

Perhaps, the most serious postnatal condition is postpartum psychosis. It’s a rare condition that affects about 1 in every 1000 moms. It leads to extreme changes in thought patterns and behaviour. This can be highly distressing for both for the mother experiencing them, and the family.

Some of the early signs of postpartum psychosis include finding it hard to sleep, feeling restless, irritable or having too much energy, feeling invincible and having strange or irrational beliefs. Postpartum psychosis usually occurs in the first few days or weeks after a baby is born.

It is very serious and puts the mother at risk of harming herself, the baby and/or her other children. If you are experiencing this, get urgent attention and treatment.

What to do if you think you have any of the above mental health conditions:

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you need to reach out to a healthcare professional. Treatment may involve taking medication, as well as counselling.

Health professionals who support maternal mental health include psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. Sometimes, you may need to go through your local clinic to get access to the right mental health professional.

The Gauteng Association for Infant Mental Health has started a nationwide campaign to support mothers across the country (click here for more information). The database

includes private practitioners for those with medical aid as well as governmental clinics, NGO resources and tollfree support numbers.

For more information about where to access help in your area, send a WhatsApp message to 0637696427.

Parents can also follow this  Instagram page for more information about maternal mental health and taking care of your baby.

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