What You Need to Know About Depression DURING Pregnancy
Thanks to recent public health initiatives, most people are aware that postpartum depression can affect many women after the birth of a child. In general, somewhere between 15-20% of new mothers will develop this condition.
What’s less known is that women can develop depression or anxiety at any time in the perinatal period—or the time period that encompasses the 40 weeks of pregnancy and the baby’s first year of life. According to many studies, prenatal depression is probably just as common as postpartum depression. This is one of the reasons why the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that all pregnant women be routinely screened for depression.
Virtua licensed clinical social worker and certified child-life specialist Alice Jannini runs a weekly postpartum depression support group, and mothers-to-be are welcome to attend and discuss their concerns. “I am always happy to see a pregnant woman come to our group,” says Jannini. “This is a huge proactive step that shows she's taking care of herself, is in touch with her feelings, and knows she needs to find support to get through a challenging time in her life.”
Is it Baby Blues or Depression?
Not everyone who feels sad or anxious during or after pregnancy has clinical depression or a psychiatric condition. Mood swings and fleeting, overwhelming emotions are expected during a time of surging hormones, physical changes, and the dramatic lifestyle changes that come with parenthood. If these symptoms are severe enough to disrupt your ability to function, however, perinatal depression or anxiety is likely to blame.
“I tell my patients, ‘You know yourself best. You know how you feel when you’re healthy, and when you’re not,’” says Jannini. “If something just isn’t right, it’s important to share that with a medical professional.” Your doctor might use a screening questionnaire to gauge the severity of your symptoms, and it’s crucial to answer honestly. Attending a support group like the one offered at Virtua can help you open up. You’ll have the opportunity to hear from other moms who are struggling with similar feelings and problems.
Understanding Intrusive Thoughts and What to Do
“One thing I always discuss at our meetings is the concept of ‘intrusive thoughts,’” says Jannini. Intrusive thoughts happen to everyone at some point in their lives, but they can be especially common and worrisome for new mothers. “Intrusive thoughts during the perinatal period are very often related to the vulnerability of the baby,” she continues. Thoughts like:
- What if I drop him?
- What if someone tries to steal my baby?
- What if I cut her with a sharp knife?
- What if I can’t cope with the stress and become psychotic?
In her group, Jannini encourages open discussion about these fleeting, yet scary, thoughts.
If intrusive thoughts are disrupting your ability to function, it might indicate a clinical anxiety disorder. But, if you are aware that the thoughts are disturbing and unwelcome, it’s a good sign that you’re safe from psychosis. “A psychotic person feels that their thoughts are normal, and everyone else just can’t understand,” she explains.
Once moms open up in the group and air their feelings, they feel a lot better right away. They then can share positive coping and distraction techniques to get on with the business of their everyday lives.
Getting Help for Prenatal and Postpartum Depression
Virtua offers several services to help women dealing with depression at any point in their pregnancy, in the postpartum adjustment period and beyond, including:
- Depression screening in the hospital after delivery
- Weekly perinatal depression support group
- Education on treatment options that may include medication and/or counseling
- Coordination with the patient's obstetrician
- Additional support through follow-up telephone calls
- Happiest Baby on the Block class to help parents learn to soothe fussy babies
If you are having any thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
Updated June 17, 2016