Becoming a parent can be a joyful time but going through pregnancy or bringing a new baby into a household can also test the bonds of love between parents.
"Even the strongest, healthiest and most loving relationships can be put under stress in the journey to becoming a parent," says Terri Smith, CEO of PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia. "Especially when the normal ups and downs of becoming a parent lead to something more serious in perinatal anxiety or depression."
Perinatal anxiety and depression is a serious and common illness that affects around 100,000 families across Australia every year. It occurs during pregnancy (antenatal) and in the first year after birth (postnatal). It can affect anyone: male or female, rich or poor, whatever their race, religion or background.
With the right support, those affected can recover and go on to enjoy parenthood. Left untreated, however, this illness can have devastating consequences for individuals and families. It can even put lives at risk.
PANDA recently launched a new online tool for expecting and new parents and their loved ones who are worried about their mental health. PANDA's Mental Health Checklist for Expecting and New Parents asks questions about changes people have noticed since starting their journey to becoming a parent – including changes in their relationships.
"We know relationships can be put under strain and that when this happens it really stands out for people even amid all the other changes going on," says Ms Smith. "It was therefore critically important to include in our Checklist questions that gave people an opportunity to assess their emotional wellbeing if their relationships were under strain."
Completing PANDA's Checklist – which also includes questions about changes in people's body and behaviour and in their thoughts and feelings – creates a Results page that gives users an indication whether what they are experiencing or observing in a loved one could be a reason to seek help.
"This Checklist is a unique and much-needed online and anonymous tool that allows expecting and new parents who are worried about their mental health to assess their emotional wellbeing," says Ms Smith.
"The answers it provides can also help these individuals and their loved ones discuss their mental health with their health professionals."
"On the PANDA National Helpline we hear every day about the stresses perinatal anxiety and depression can put on relationships. On the other hand, hearing afterwards that relationships have been PANDA's new Mental Health Checklist for Expecting and New Parents repaired and have thrived once the illness has been treated, is one of the happiest things our Helpline counsellors can hear."
For many callers to PANDA's National Helpline and for many who complete the Checklist and seek help, once they address their perinatal anxiety and depression, their relationships improve. For many, their love is as strong as ever, sometimes even deeper and richer for the troubles they shared.
You can access PANDA's Mental Health Checklist for Expecting and New Parents here.
PANDA has a number of volunteer mums willing to share their experiences of relationship difficulties during their journey to becoming a parent.
Question: What is perinatal anxiety and depression?
Terri Smith: A: Perinatal anxiety and depression can develop during pregnancy or in the year after birth. It is a serious and common illness that affects around 100,000 Australian families every year. Perinatal anxiety and depression has many faces and does not discriminate – it can affect anyone (male or female), and have devastating consequences for individuals and families if left untreated.
Question: What symptoms are associated with perinatal anxiety and depression?
Terri Smith: A: Signs and symptoms vary from person to person. Some of the most common symptoms include panic attacks; persistent, generalised worry; sleep problems unrelated to the baby's needs; lethargy; loss of confidence and self-esteem; constant sadness or crying; and withdrawal from friends and family.
Question: How does perinatal anxiety and depression affect parents, differently?
Terri Smith: A: Although expecting and new mums and dads affected by perinatal anxiety and depression experience many similar symptoms, there are also some differences in how these illnesses can affect women and men. People often think that depression is a form of extreme sadness, characterised by a low mood or constant crying. In fact, anxiety or depression can also lead to a very agitated state of mind in some people. Men with depression may feel wound up, frustrated, or unable to relax – a feeling sometimes described as 'like being trapped', or 'pacing in a cage'. They can have outbursts of anger or rage that are 'not in character', leading to feelings of shame or guilt. It is important to recognise these symptoms as signs it may be time to get some help, and not let them simmer away or keep them bottled up.
Question: How can families support someone suffering from perinatal anxiety or depression?
Terri Smith: A: Having a family member affected by perinatal anxiety or depression can be distressing and confronting. The best thing you can provide for the person who is struggling is patient, understanding and non-judgemental support. It's important not to fuel any thoughts that being unwell is a sign of 'failing' as a parent. Ask your family member what would be helpful for them – they might find it hard to know what they need but letting them know you care and want to help can't hurt.
Question: What are the treatment options for perinatal anxiety and depression?
Terri Smith: A: There are a range of treatment options that can be discussed with a trusted health professional, from medication to counselling, social support, speaking with someone who has been through a similar experience (peer support), exercise and a healthy diet. If symptoms of perinatal anxiety and depression last for more than two weeks, it's time to seek support.
Question: Can you tell us about the new online tool PANDA has released?
Terri Smith: A: PANDA's Mental Health Checklist for Expecting and New Parents is a unique and much-needed online and anonymous tool that allows expecting and new parents who are worried about their mental health to assess their emotional wellbeing. The answers it provides can also help these individuals and their loved ones discuss their mental health with their health professionals.
Interview by Brooke Hunter