Up to 40% of mothers in South Africa are affected by perinatal depression. It can be lonely, distressing and frightening but effective treatments are available
Cape Town - Up to 40% of mothers in South Africa are affected by perinatal depression. It can be lonely, distressing and frightening, but support and effective treatments are available.  

The birth of a baby can trigger a range of powerful emotions, from excitement and joy to fear and anxiety. It can also result in depression. Many new mothers experience “postnatal depression”, a clinical condition affecting women soon after childbirth.

Baby blues are a normal experience that typically begin within the first two to three days after delivery, and may last for up to two weeks. But some new mothers experience a more severe, long-lasting form of depression known as postpartum depression. This may last until the baby is between six and 12 months old. Rarely, an extreme mood disorder called postpartum psychosis also may develop after childbirth.

Signs and symptoms

“Signs include mood swings, tearfulness, anxiety and difficulty sleeping,” says Dr Bavi Vythilingum, a psychiatrist at Akeso Clinic Kenilworth. “In more severe cases, these include a persistent feeling of sadness and a depressed mood lasting for two weeks or more, and may also include lack of interest, guilt and hopelessness.”

Because it’s a set of symptoms that often start to appear in the antenatal period, some medical professionals today prefer the term ‘perinatal depression’ to cover both pre-  and post-birth depression, according to Vythilingum.

Additional signs that you or someone you know might be depressed include:
  • lack of enjoyment and loss of interest in the outside world
  • lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
  • trouble sleeping at night and feeling exhausted during the day
  • difficulty bonding with the baby
  • withdrawing from contact with other people
  • problems concentrating and making decisions
  • frightening thoughts – for example, about hurting the baby or harming yourself
  • thoughts about suicide
“Postpartum depression isn't a weakness,” she stresses. “It's simply a complication of giving birth. It’s very common in South Africa, with between 30% to 40% of mothers experiencing this form of mental illness. Although most of them are too afraid to talk about it, or even admit to it, this illness affects millions of women every year.”

What causes postnatal depression?

There is no single cause. Instead, it is generally the result of a constellation of factors, including:
  • a history of mental health problems, particularly depression, earlier in life
  • a history of mental health problems during pregnancy
  • having no close family or friends to support you
  • a poor relationship with your partner
  • having an unwanted child
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