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Overview of mental illness during & after pregnancy

Low mood, depression, and anxiety in pregnancy, or immediately after a baby is born, are common and affect many women.

For some women, this might be the first time they experience mental illness. For others, a mental illness that was previously stable might come back during pregnancy or after the baby is born.

Anxiety and depression are the most common. Rarely, psychosis can also develop.

Some factors increase the risk of becoming mentally unwell during pregnancy or after childbirth, such as:

Depression

Having depression when you're pregnant (antenatal depression), or after your baby is born (postnatal depression) is common. You can have depression even when you wanted to get pregnant, and you love your baby. It doesn't mean you're rejecting your baby.

Symptoms of depression include:

If you think you have depression, get help as early as possible – it's important for you and your baby.

Depression can be treated with a combination of self-care and help from others, which can include support, talking therapies and medication.

Fathers can also get a kind of post-natal depression and may need help.

Anxiety

Many women experience anxiety while they're pregnant or after their baby is born. It's understandable, since this is a time of great change and anticipation.

For some women this anxiety can become overwhelming, and cause problems during their pregnancy or after their baby is born.

Symptoms of severe anxiety include:

Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms such as heart racing, feeling nauseated (sick), shortness of breath and headache. Sometimes anxiety can go along with depression.

If anxiety is a problem, you can try some ways to help yourself as well as reaching out for help from others.

Other conditions

If you have a history of mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, you may become unwell during pregnancy and the postnatal period.This means your doctor will need to closely monitor your health for any changes during this time.

Rarely, pregnant women or new mothers may develop a condition called postnatal psychosis. This most often happens in the first month after giving birth. It can be hard to recognise, as someone who has it might not share their thoughts with others.

If you have postnatal psychosis, you might start thinking very unusual thoughts, believing weird things and acting in strange ways. Postnatal psychosis needs treatment, and usually, an admission to a psychiatric hospital. Seek advice from a medical professional if you're worried, or have concerns about a new mother acting this way.

Important

If a friend is depressed and considering suicide, or is behaving unusually, and this is causing you or others to worry about her or her baby’s safety, contact your local mental health crisis team:

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On the next page: Self-care for mental illness during & after pregnancy

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Consultant Psychiatrist, Mothers and Babies Service, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed February 2021.

Sources

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Review key: HIMIP-416276