Postpartum Depression: A Guide to Symptoms and Treatment

A Guide to Postpartum Depression
Photo: Stocksy/Laura Stolfy

Society will tell you over and over again: Having a baby is the most exciting time of your life. But what about when that time of motherhood celebration is clouded by postpartum depression (PPD) or anxiety? The mental health hurdles that can pop up during or after pregnancy can be severe. That’s why it’s important to keep your mental health at the forefront of any conversations you have throughout your pregnancy and birth of your child.

“It can be an uncomfortable topic to talk about,” said Joanne Newfield, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is part of the WMN / WRK Network, about maternal mental health. “A lot of people don’t know how to start the conversation.”

Whether it’s with your partner or your boss, the most crucial piece of the conversation is the beginning. Bringing the topic up before symptoms show up is the best approach. That way, those around you can know what to look for. And hopefully, you and your team have put a plan in place for how to get help.

So, if you’re expecting a child or have just had one, what are the symptoms to be on the lookout for? Several different diagnoses can come about postpartum.

Here are the most common depression diagnoses after childbirth, their symptoms, and treatment.

Postpartum Depression

Symptoms: Postpartum depression is the most common affliction for new moms; about 1 in 7 mothers will suffer from it.  If you are suffering from postpartum depression, you may experience sadness, mood swings, difficulty sleeping (even when the baby is sleeping), difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, thoughts of helplessness or thoughts of suicide.

Treatment:

Postpartum Anxiety

Symptoms: Because postpartum anxiety is less talked about than postpartum depression, often people do not realize than many people suffer from postpartum anxiety, which includes symptoms of irrational worries, thoughts that something is going to happen to your baby, overwhelming worries that you’re not doing motherhood right.

Treatment:

Postpartum Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Symptoms: Postpartum Post-traumatic Stress Disorder usually affects mothers who have had a traumatic pregnancy – emergency C-section, miscarriage, etc).  If you are suffering from postpartum PTSD, you may be experiencing symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares, irritability or hypervigilance and/or panic attacks.

Treatment:

Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Symptoms: If you are suffering from postpartum OCD, you may be experiencing obsessions or intrusive thoughts related to the baby and/or compulsions (persistent counting, re-ordering, cleaning, etc.)

Treatment: 

For any of these symptoms, it’s important to enlist the help of a therapist or other professional. Often, they can tell the difference between something mild (the short-lasting “baby blues”) versus something much more serious (postpartum depression).

If you are diagnosed with any postpartum mental illness, it becomes crucial that you get the help you need. Sometimes this means psychotherapy, taking a longer maternal leave (which you are legally obligated to if diagnosed with postpartum depression or anxiety), or medication.

“I think a lot of women don’t know it’s safe to use medication (during pregnancy or while breastfeeding),” Newfield said. “Every woman is different. Some don’t want to use medication, but for the women who do, there are safe options.”

If you are suffering and postpone getting help, symptoms can have a huge effect on your work. Loss of concentration, difficulty sleeping, and irritability can all cloud your ability to function well in the workplace.

“It gets in the way of your projects,” Newfield said. “It may get in the way of staying organized. It’s hard to work with other people when you’re experiencing these symptoms. How are you supposed to function in the office if you’re not able to sleep?”

Outside of the workplace, maternal mental health can have a huge impact. A partner or other family members can take on similar symptoms. And the development of your baby’s brain may even be affected if you’re suffering from postpartum depression and have difficulty bonding with the baby.

“Maybe you won’t hold your baby, or talk to your baby,” Newfield said. “If we do the bare minimum, if we feed our baby and change their diapers, their brains are at risk of not developing in a healthy way. They’ll be at risk of developmental delays, and also mental health problems down the road.”

At the end of the day, no matter how imposing and impossible a mental health crisis may feel like, help is available. People like Newfield offer psychotherapy (even in-home sessions, which can be helpful for new mothers). Medication is available. Hospitals often provide resources and information on how to get help.

But the first step? Talking about it, and releasing any guilt associated with your symptoms.

“A lot of people think it’s an emotional disease,” Newfield said. “But it’s a chemical imbalance. You can’t really see it. A lot of people suffer in silence. There’s unfortunately still a lot of shame in mental health but the statistics are high. There is support out there and we can help you.”