During TheBlueDotProject's Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, it's time to focus on the mental health of mothers—especially during a life-changing pandemic. The most recognized maternal mental health disorder is postpartum depression, but there are other common mental health concerns to look out for.

By Paige Glidden
May 07, 2021
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Juggling societal and familial expectations is a heavy burden for anyone. But when you add a new baby into the mix (during a pandemic!), it can become overwhelming. Sleepless nights, hormones, and new emotions all feed into overwhelm after the birth of a baby, not to mention that maternal anxiety and depression are the most common complications of childbirth, impacting up to 1 in 5 women.

The first week of May serves as Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, bringing to light the challenges that moms face and the reality of postpartum depression and anxiety. Maternal Mental Health Disorders (MMHDs) include a range of disorders and symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and psychosis. Although often referred to more commonly as "postpartum depression," there are several different types of postpartum mental health disorders that affect new moms.

Symptoms can occur during pregnancy and/or the postpartum period (together often referred to as the perinatal period). These illnesses can affect anyone—and they are far more common than you'd think. Although an estimated one in five women have a maternal mental health disorder, most cases go undiagnosed, leading experts to believe that the number should be much higher. New parents also experience the baby blues, which is not formally considered an MMHD—up to 80 percent of women suffer from this in the initial two to three days postpartum, according to Bridget Frese Hutchens, Ph.D., CNM, RN, CNL, PHN.

What's worse is that only 30 percent of women who screen positive for depression or anxiety seek or receive treatment. When left untreated these disorders can cause devastating consequences for moms, babies, families and communities. The good news is that risk for both depression and anxiety can be reduced (and sometimes even prevented), and with treatment, women can recover.

It can be hard to identify some of the symptoms of postpartum mental health challenges, but it's worth paying attention to. Here are five types of maternal mental health conditions to look out for:

An image of a mother and her baby.
Credit: Getty Images.

Common Maternal Mental Health Disorders

1. Postpartum Depression

Pregnancy and Postpartum Depression (PPD) is a mood disorder that can begin during pregnancy or in the first three weeks after having a baby, according to ACOG, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Symptoms can range from mild sadness, trouble concentrating, or difficulty finding joy in once-loved activities to severe depression, and mothers with pre-existing depression prior to or during pregnancy are more likely to experience postpartum depression, according to The Blue Dot Project. While there is no single cause for PPD, experts attribute it to the drop in hormones estrogen and progesterone following childbirth and general stressors which increase during pregnancy and the postpartum period. With proper mental health care, PPD is treatable and the risk of severe depression can also be prevented.

2. Dysthymia, Persistent Depressive Disorder

Dysthymia is defined as a low mood occurring for at least two years, along with at least two other symptoms of depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, people with dysthymia may lose interest in normal daily activities, feel hopeless, or have overall feelings of inadequacy. Women with pre-existing dysthymia may be at a higher risk for severe symptoms/depression during the perinatal period, according to The Blue Dot Project.

3. Pregnancy and Postpartum General Anxiety

It might seem normal to worry before or after having  a baby, but if your anxiety is more than just the baby blues and you can't get these worries out of your brain, you might be suffering from pregnancy or postpartum related generalized anxiety . Around 10 percent of women will develop anxiety during pregnancy or after childbirth, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Anxiety is treatable during pregnancy and postpartum.

Symptoms often include restlessness, racing heartbeat, inability to sleep, extreme worry about the "what if's"—questions like "what if my baby experiences SIDS" or "what if my baby has autism," and extreme worry about not being a good parent or being able to provide for her family, according to The Blue Dot Project.

4. Pregnancy and Postpartum OCD

Maternal Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) affects 3 to 5 percent of women. About 50 percent of women with postpartum OCD have intrusive or unwanted thoughts about intentionally harming their infant (e.g., throwing the baby). Read more about postpartum OCD and its symptoms here. It is important to note that although obsessions often contain alarming content, they do not represent a psychotic process, where mothers are at a higher risk of harming themselves or their infants/children, according to The Blue Dot Project.

5. Birth-Related PTSD

Upwards of 45 percent of women feel that they had a traumatic birth experience and 4 percent experience post-traumatic stress disorder due to giving birth. Women who struggle with PTSD often experience memories and flashbacks of the event. This PTSD can impact how parents celebrate a child's birthday, which is the anniversary of their own trauma, as well as subsequent childbirths.

When to Seek Help

Everyone's mental health journey looks and feels different — but the important thing is to know you are not alone. Finding a support system is key to being your best self and the best mom you can be.

According to Dr. Frese Hutchens, people in the postpartum period should seek help through a doctor, therapist, or support group when symptoms are persisting two weeks or longer and interfering with their ability to function. They should reach out to their doctors sooner if they have a history of mental health concerns.

If you don't know where to turn for support, Postpartum Support International has a provider directory of qualified perinatal mental health professions and groups in the United States and Canada, and also offers a helpline and text support. Read more about telemedicine options for postpartum mental health concerns here.

There's no better time to talk about these issues than during TheBlueDotProject's Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week Campaign. All moms are invited to honestly talk about the challenges of parenting in a pandemic by sharing photos and posts that show the real face of motherhood. You can join the 5-day #MakingOverMotherhood #RealMotherhood challenge by posting your motherhood images on social media this May, or visiting TheBlueDotProject on social media to create community with other moms, and finding resources on maternal mental health.

Take an online mental health screening or find more resources and information here. Most importantly, please remember: you are not alone.