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Anxiety during pregnancy could be bigger problem than postnatal depression

When the mental health of new mothers is discussed, the conversation typically revolves around postnatal depression following the birth of the baby. What isn’t so widely talked about is the fact that many women experience anxiety and depression early on in their pregnancy.

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Figures released by the Royal College of Midwives last week suggest that up to 20 percent of women experience perinatal mental illness during pregnancy and the first year of their babies’ lives. Worryingly, only half of those women are identified, which may be down to fear of reporting the illness to health professionals, or the failure of those professionals to recognise the warning signs. Furthermore, only half of the women identified as having perinatal illness receive the appropriate treatment.

“Perinatal mental illness exerts a significant toll on families, and the impact on the women themselves, their baby and the wider society cannot be underestimated,” said Cathy Warwick, Chief Executive of the RCM. “We know that suicide is a leading cause of death in new mothers in the U.K. Despite this, provision of perinatal mental health services in the U.K. is at best patchy, and in some areas, non-existent.”

“The cost of providing better services for the women and their families will be far less than the cost of failing to treat them,” she continued. “These are things that must, and should, be done. The system is failing many women and their families and that is simply not acceptable.”

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The RCM, supported by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, wants every maternity trust to have a midwife who specialises in maternal mental health at a senior level, and all health professionals working with women in the perinatal period to have a basic awareness, knowledge and understanding of perinatal mental health and its problems.

Charlotte is one mum who feels she didn’t receive the support she needed during her pregnancy with Eilidh, now 3. “I was in a constant state of anxiety during pregnancy,” she said. “I struggled to eat and sleep; felt tense, paranoid and shaky; and drove myself crazy worrying about all the things that could go wrong. But I wrote it off as simply being part and parcel of pregnancy, thinking all expectant mums felt the same way.”

What Charlotte didn’t realise was that while some amount of worry is natural during pregnancy, her anxiety was a clinical condition that was taking over her life and affecting her relationships. Her condition developed after the birth, and after being diagnosed with postnatal anxiety and depression, she was prescribed antidepressants and took mindfulness classes to help challenge anxious thoughts and behaviours.

An early diagnosis is really important to recovery, stresses Bluebell, a Bristol-based charity supporting families who are affected by perinatal or postnatal depression. Being aware of the common symptoms of depression is key — these include feelings of irritability, hopelessness or panic, obsessional thoughts, difficulty sleeping, lack of interest in sex and a desire to withdraw.

Perinatal anxiety may manifest itself as physical pain for which doctors can offer no explanation, general feelings of illness and exhaustion, extreme tension and a reluctance to socialise, talk to others or even leave the house.

Anxiety and/or depression is different for everyone, and like Charlotte, many mums may dismiss their symptoms as normal signs of pregnancy or being a new mother. If you have any concerns at all about your mental health at any time during pregnancy or after giving birth, please speak to your GP or health visitor.

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