Becoming a parent can be an overwhelming stage of life. While it can feel like the expectation of new parents is to be thrilled with their new arrival, it is common for parents to experience mental health difficulties during pregnancy or in the year after the birth (known as the perinatal period).

If someone close to you is experiencing a perinatal mental illness like anxiety or depression, it can be challenging to know how best to support them. Learning how to recognize the symptoms of perinatal anxiety or depression and understanding where to seek support can help families grow stronger and help parents through their journey.

What are perinatal anxiety and depression?

“Perinatal” refers to the period during pregnancy and within the first year after birth. This time comes with all sorts of new questions, challenges, hormones, and emotional experiences. If you are struggling during the perinatal stage, you are not alone, and it does not mean that you are a bad parent. The earlier you seek help, the earlier you can reconnect with yourself and your new family.

Perinatal Anxiety and depression can impact any new parent. If you notice your loved one displaying some of the following symptoms, it could be time to begin a conversation with them about their mental health:

  • Persistent low moods or anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Sleep problems unrelated to the baby’s needs
  • Lethargy
  • Guilt surrounding not coping well
  • Shame around ‘not loving’ their baby enough
  • Withdrawing from seeing family and friends
  • Changes in appetite
  • Loss of confidence and self-esteem.

What can I do if I notice my loved one struggling?

You can start by asking your loved ones how they are and really listen to their answer. If this prompts them to share any concerns about their mental health with you, it may be a confronting conversation to have, but just listening and acknowledging their feelings is a good way to validate their experience and encourage them to seek further support.

If your loved one opens up to you about feeling anxious or depressed, remind them that while it must be difficult to feel these ways, help is available, and they are not a bad parent for admitting to having a hard time right now.

If they do not open up to you, try not to force it, otherwise, they might hide or bury their feelings further. Let them know that if they do find themselves feeling down and they feel like talking, you are here to listen to them. It’s also helpful to remind them they can talk to their doctor, a mental health service such as PANDA, or someone else they can trust.

Your support and love can go a long way in helping your loved one through this time, but remember it is not your responsibility to ‘cure’ their mental wellbeing or ‘fix the problem. While you can direct them to professional support, it is important to remember that you also need to look after your own wellbeing. If you experience difficult feelings yourself (and we know having a partner who is struggling is one of the biggest risk factors for perinatal mental illness), consider reaching out to a different trusted person or your own professional support.

Other ways you can help your loved one could be:

  • Cook a meal. Finding the motivation to plan and prepare a meal can be difficult when we feel exhausted, depressed or anxious, so this could be a nice way to help them eat something healthy and have a low-pressure interaction when you drop it off or cook at their home.
  • Babysit. Offer to come over and help take care of the baby. Whether this gives them a chance to get out of the house, or a chance to stay home and rest while you’re looking out for the little one, a babysitter can be a welcome break for any new parent.
  • Offer your companionship for medical appointments. Sometimes having someone to sit within the waiting room can make a doctor or therapist trip feel a bit less daunting.
  • Suggest you take walks together, or do some kind of gentle exercise. Remember to keep the activity post-pregnancy safe for mums. Sometimes when it comes to exercise, a buddy can be the motivation we need to get active.
  • Keep in mind that some people who are experiencing mental health challenges struggle to accept help, so don’t feel down if your offers are not accepted. Just gently persisting lets them know you are here for them.

If you are unsure how to best support your loved one, you can contact Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA). PANDA’s counselors can work with you to support your loved one and also support your own wellbeing.

You can call the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306 from Monday to Friday between 9 am and 7:30 pm (AEDT/AEST).

If you need urgent help outside of hours, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.