What is Perinatal Mental Health?

Credit to SANE.org for content

Pregnancy and the first year of parenthood (the perinatal period) is an exciting time that brings new challenges and responsibilities for expecting parents. 

However, both men and women can experience depression or anxiety during pregnancy (antenatal) and following the birth of their baby (postnatal). Mothers can also develop postnatal psychosis, an acute and rare mental illness. 

Perinatal mental illnesses are treatable. With appropriate care and support, many people with perinatal mental illness go on to have more children.  

The facts

  • As many as 1 in 5 expecting or new mums and 1 in 10 expecting or new dads will experience perinatal anxiety or depression. 
  • Perinatal anxiety or depression affects around 100,000 families across Australia every year.  
  • Mothers and fathers can develop perinatal mental illness during pregnancy, during early parenthood or any time in the first 12 months of a child’s life. After this time, it is usually treated as a non-perinatal mental illness. 
  • Postnatal psychosis (also known as postpartum or puerperal psychosis) is a serious and rare form of acute mental illness that usually occurs within the first month after a child is born. It affects one to two new mothers in every 1000. 

Expecting and new parents experience many emotions during pregnancy and early parenthood. Pregnant women and their partners may feel anxious, scared, sad or nervous about becoming a parent. For new parents, the changes that come with a new baby can bring a number of difficult challenges. Some people develop more distressing anxiety or depression which affects their daily life and functioning.  

The signs of perinatal anxiety and depression include: 

  • persistent, generalised worry, often focused on fears for the health or wellbeing of the baby 
  • the development of obsessive or compulsive behaviours 
  • abrupt mood swings, or feeling constantly sad, low, or crying for no obvious reason 
  • having little or no interest in all the normal things that bring joy  
  • withdrawing from friends and family 
  • finding it difficult to focus, concentrate or remember  
  • having thoughts of death or suicide 
  • increased sensitivity to noise or touch 
  • changes in appetite: under or overeating 
  • sleep problems unrelated to the baby’s needs 
  • loss of confidence and lowered self-esteem 
  • fear of being alone with baby 
  • intrusive thoughts of harm to yourself or baby  
  • increased alcohol or drug use. 

Men’s symptoms may be the same as women’s, or they may be different. Some men may experience agitation and frustration. They may have out of character outbursts of anger or rage, leading to feelings of shame or guilt. These symptoms are signs it’s time to get help, rather than letting let them simmer or keeping them bottled up. 

Postnatal psychosis symptoms 

Symptoms of postnatal psychosis may include:  

  • extreme sudden mood swings, from very high to very low 
  • out of character behaviour 
  • aggressive behaviour 
  • a high level of agitation 
  • irrational or delusional thoughts or beliefs, which may include irrational beliefs or thoughts about the baby 
  • hallucinations and changes in sense perception, such as smelling, hearing or seeing things that are not actually there 
  • paranoid or strange beliefs about the baby that cannot be countered by rational discussion  
  • grandiose or unrealistic beliefs about your abilities as a mother  
  • unusual or inappropriate responses to the baby  
  • disordered or nonsensical thoughts and conversations. 

Where to get help