The 6 Things You Need to Know About Perinatal Mood Disorders

Shortly after the birth of my first child, I was crying more and sleeping less. My temper was short, my appetite was non-existent and my soul felt empty. I wasn’t consumed by emotions, as the doctors warned me was a sign of postpartum depression. Instead, I was void of them. I felt distant. Detached. I was completely numb.

I didn’t know anything was wrong. In fact, as a first-time mom, I thought my feelings were par for the new parenting course. 

But when my thoughts turned darker — I began having suicidal visions and thoughts of self-harm — I realized something was very wrong. And indeed, it turns out I had a perinatal mood disorder (PMD).

The good news is that (eventually) I got help. After months of struggling, I broke down and said the words “I’m not okay,” and while I was terrified, those words humbled and healed me. With the help of my husband, psychologist, OB/GYN and psychiatrist, I was able to save myself and my life. Why? Because hope is possible, because help is available and because perinatal mood disorders can be treated.

The first step toward “recovery” is education. Well, that and admitting you’re not okay. Here’s everything you need to know about PMD.

1. Perinatal mood disorders are surprisingly common.

According to Postpartum Support International, 15 to 20% of women experience significant symptoms of depression or anxiety while pregnant or during the postpartum period. Women with a history of mental illness, addiction and/or trauma are particularly at risk.

2. Postpartum depression isn’t the only one.

There are numerous types of perinatal mood disorders — postpartum depression (PPD) is included in this category, but the range of disorders varies. Why? Because according to the National Perinatal Association, any mental health complication which occurs during the perinatal period, from the time of conception through your infant’s first year of life, is considered a perinatal condition.

Recognized perinatal mood disorders include prenatal depression, postpartum depression, prenatal anxiety, postpartum anxiety, pre- or postpartum OCD, postpartum psychosis and postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder.

3. Signs and symptoms aren’t always the same.

Since the term perinatal mood disorder encompasses numerous conditions, the symptoms can vary widely. Postpartum depression, for example, is characterized by periods of extreme sadness, while those living with postpartum psychosis often deal with delusions, hallucinations and/or unusual beliefs. However, there are some universal signs, says Karen Kleiman, the founder and director of The Postpartum Stress Center and author of Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts.

Many new moms feel overwhelmed and disconnected. They express feeling hopeless, helpless, worthless and fatigued. Crying and panic attacks are also common (as is anxiety), and changes to sleep and eating habits occur. However, many mothers struggle to verbalize their thoughts.

“Women experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders often state they just don’t feel like themselves,” Kleiman tells SheKnows.

4. They’re really hard to identify in yourself.

“Most women don’t realize they are depressed,” says Dr. Anna Yam, a clinical psychologist who specializes in perinatal mental health at Bloom Psychology. “Instead, they notice tearfulness, fatigue and that they’re not able to enjoy things the way they used to. Some women also experience feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest in the baby, insomnia and thoughts of harming themselves or the baby.”

Many new moms have a hard time distinguishing normal thoughts and behaviors from abnormal ones — and that’s both expected and okay. Motherhood can be a complicated and confusing journey.

5. It’s important to say something, even if you’re unsure there’s a problem.

Unsure if your (or a friend’s) thoughts could be related to a perinatal mood disorder? Reach out to someone you trust each and every time you are troubled or distressed. “If you are a first-time mom and are concerned about your thoughts, emotions and functioning, that could be a sign than you would benefit from help and support,” says Yam. “There is no wrong time to seek help if you are concerned.”

If a new or expectant mother believes something is off, they should immediately get help. “Any symptom of mood changes or anxiety that impairs a mom’s ability to get through the day should be brought to the attention of her healthcare provider,” says Kleiman.

6. Help is available. Ask.

Talking to your OB/GYN or your child’s pediatrician is a good place to start. “[These physicians] can administer a screening test and provide recommendations and referrals to perinatal mental health providers,” says Yam.

Peer groups can also be very useful. “Most mothers… benefit from attending local mothers’ support group,” says Yam. You might also want to check out Postpartum Support International‘s list of perinatal mental health providers and its other helpful resources for mothers and families. 

If you are struggling with a pre- or postpartum mood disorder, contact Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773 or text START to 741-741 to speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.

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