How to recognise postnatal depression and what to do about it

I am writing this story as someone who has not experienced postnatal depression but who has some friends who have gone through it. In the name of friendship and in an effort to be as supportive as possible, I’ve had to get myself a clue about what characterises postnatal depression (PND) and, most importantly, what to do about it.

Okay, so here are some symptoms that may be indicative of PND (a compiled list sourced from parenting website Whattoexpect.co.uk and Nhs.co.uk):

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Inability or lack of desire to take care of yourself and/or your baby.
  • Feelings of failure as a mother, and guilt about your feelings.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Eating problems – no appetite or increased appetite (comfort eating).
  • Insomnia.
  • Memory problems.
  • Feelings of panic.
  • Obsessive-compulsive thoughts or behaviour.
  • Loss of interest in the world around you and no longer enjoying things that used to give pleasure.
  • Difficulties with concentration and making decisions.
  • Frightening thoughts – relating to self-harm or harming the baby.

Now perhaps you’re reading the list and ticking off a couple of these symptoms. Many mums may have felt any of the above at some point; the thing with PND is that the aforementioned symptoms will be more intense than the baby blues (which is considered a mild form of depressions and is common in new mums) or a ‘just a bad morning’. And PND is also persistent – it lasts longer than a couple of weeks.

Whattoexpect.co.uk’s resident baby expert Heidi Murkoff says there are three questions to ask yourself if you’re trying to do a self-diagnosis:

  • I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong.
  • I have felt scared or panicky for not very good reasons.
  • I have been anxious or worried for not very good reasons.

If you would answer ‘Yes, most of the time’ or ‘Yes, some of the time’ to any or all of these questions, it’s probably time to tell someone that you suspect PND.

But sometimes mums (our friends) may not realise that they might be experiencing PND, in which case, here are things to look out for (according to the NHS):

  • They frequently cry for no obvious reason.
  • They have difficulties bonding with their baby.
  • They seem to be neglecting themselves – for example, not washing or changing clothes.
  • They seem to have lost all sense of time – often unaware if 10 minutes or two hours have passed.
  • They lose all sense of humour and cannot see the funny side of anything.
  • They worry something is wrong with their baby, regardless of reassurance.

The first thing to do when you have self-diagnosed PND or even if you aren’t sure but suspect depression is tell someone. It is important to voice your feelings so that you can start to deal with them and get help.

Advice columns and experts usually suggest talking to a GP or a health visitor but the reality is that most mums won’t do that because it is largely impersonal; very few people see the same GP on a regular basis and the UK has very little sense of a ‘family doctor’. First point of contact is usually a friend.

As a friend with friends who have suffered PND, I was good at the friend support bit but totally clueless when it came to the practical implications – what steps to you take to get help if suffering from PND?

The first thing to know (as friend or PND sufferer) is that PND can be treated and the symptoms can go away. This is brilliant news! Your GP is the person who will be able to suggest either therapy and/or antidepressants or refer you to someone who can is better equipped to do so; so GP-contact is important. The prescribed therapy – whether it’s in the form of a self-help group, one-on-one counselling or cognitive therapy – aims to help you cope with, and hopefully overcome PND.

Therapy is important but there are also things you can do to help along the way. Heidi Murkoff suggests:

  • Ask for (and accept!) help from family and friends. Don’t try to be a supermum and do it all.
  • Have your partner take some night time shifts with the baby so you can get some sleep.
  • Aim to get out of the house at least once a day for fresh air and a change of scene.
  • Get support from others. Talk with friends or find other mums who are wrestling with the same feelings at WhatToExpect.co.uk’s postnatal depression message board.

Also make sure that you eat a healthy diet to keep your immune system up and prevent lethargy – so; fruit, vegetables, protein… all the usuals. And try and reconnect with things you love – reading, drawing, visiting galleries, tea & cake dates with friends etc.

It’s so important to know that PND is not uncommon and you are not alone in the way you feel, no matter how embarrassed, ashamed or appalled you feel about the way you feel.

A great article to read is “How I drew my way out of postnatal depression”, written by Patrick Barkham about about illustrator Angie Stevens.

Sources: Whattoexpect.co.uk – “Recognising Postnatal Depression” and nhs.co.uk – “Postnatal Depression – symptoms”