Depression And Pregnancy: Signs To Look For And How To Get Help

Updated January 20, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: This article discusses depression, self-harm, and suicide. If you are thinking about suicide, considering harming yourself or others, feeling that any other person may be in any danger, or if you have any medical emergency, you must immediately call the emergency service number (1-800-273-8255 in the US and 0800-689-5652 in the UK) and notify the relevant authorities. Seek immediate in-person assistance.

Depression during and after pregnancy is not uncommon. Though many women associate joy and excitement with pregnancy, it is estimated that 7% or more may experience symptoms of major depressive disorder during pregnancy, and around 12% of people experience postpartum depression. After a miscarriage, approximately 10% of people experience major depressive disorder. 

Being aware of the signs of depression (including feeling little interest in activities you used to enjoy, crying easily or frequently, feeling hopeless, and experiencing suicidal ideation) can help you identify when you need to get help. Psychotherapy and/or pharmaceutical treatment is shown to effectively reduce symptoms of prenatal and postpartum depression in most people. 

Experiencing Depression During Pregnancy?

Perinatal depression describes major depressive disorder that occurs during pregnancy (prenatal depression), or after birth (postpartum depression). Though it is estimated that 10-15% of women experience perinatal depression in developed countries, rates are estimated to be higher in developing counties. 

Certain factors can make people more likely to experience perinatal depression, including the following

  • Life stressors

  • The physical toll of pregnancy and childbirth

  • Lack of sleep

  • Fluctuations in hormone levels

  • Young age (under 20) at time of pregnancy

  • Low socioeconomic status or education level

  • Domestic violence

  • Substance use during pregnancy

  • History of trauma

  • A personal or family history of mental illness

  • Premature birth

  • Difficulty breastfeeding or pressure to breastfeed

  • Lack of adequate social support from a partner, family, or friends

It is not just women who can experience perinatal depression. Studies show that over 10% of fathers experience symptoms of anxiety and depression during the perinatal period, which may be underreported due to stigma and lack of awareness.  

Signs Of Perinatal Depression

Depression can look different for different people. The duration, intensity, and frequency of symptoms may vary, making it essential to seek out an in-person mental health professional or medical practitioner to get the appropriate diagnosis and help. However, it is common for people with perinatal depression to experience some or all the following signs and symptoms:

  • Intense mood swings and irritability

  • Crying easily, frequently, or for long periods of time

  • Feeling prolonged sadness or a sense of emptiness

  • Feeling worthless, hopeless, or guilty

  • Having a hard time bonding or connecting with the new baby

  • Becoming socially withdrawn from friends and family

  • Weight and/or appetite changes

  • Unexplained physical pains, such as headaches or digestive issues

  • Feeling like a bad parent or worrying that you are not good enough

  • Lacking interest or joy in previously enjoyable activities

  • Difficulty sleeping enough or sleeping too much

  • Experiencing intense fatigue and lack of energy

  • Restlessness

  • Difficulty concentrating or being decisive

  • Experiencing anxiety or worrying a lot

  • Having thoughts of self-harm, harming someone else, or suicide

Experiencing prenatal or postpartum depression is common and not an indicator that you are a bad parent. Perinatal depression can be very serious and sometimes develops months or years after childbirth, but effective help is available. 

If you or someone you love is experiencing a crisis, reach out to 911 or call a suicide hotline. In the U.S., you can dial 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or use the webchat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.

Experiencing Depression During Pregnancy?

How To Get Help

Doctors often utilize routine screening to assess whether patients are experiencing symptoms of depression. If they believe you might be experiencing perinatal depression, they can conduct a more thorough evaluation, provide you with a diagnosis, and help connect you with the appropriate resources.
You can also reach out to your OB-GYN, primary care physician, psychiatrist, or an in-person mental health professional if you are concerned that you might be depressed. If you’ve been recording your symptoms in a journal, it may be helpful to bring it with you for your reference during the evaluation. They may determine that you have one of the following:

  • Baby Blues: This is a common occurrence in new parents due to stress, physical and emotional exhaustion, and sleep deprivation. It typically resolves on its own within days or a few weeks of childbirth, but doctors typically recommend getting as much sleep as possible, accepting help from loved ones, building community with other new parents, and practicing self-care in the meantime. 

  • Perinatal Depression: If occurring before childbirth, this is typically called prenatal depression. If your depression occurs after childbirth, it is called postpartum depression. This is a diagnosable psychiatric disorder that is typically addressed with medication (often antidepressants) and/or psychotherapy. 

  • Postpartum Psychosis: This is a serious, but very rare, short-term psychotic disorder. Most people with postpartum psychosis are treated in an in-patient hospital setting with medications (typically antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and/or antipsychotics). In rare cases where symptoms do not respond to medications, electroconvulsive therapy may be recommended.

Most people experience a reduction in perinatal depression symptoms when they attend psychotherapy sessions with a licensed professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on re-evaluating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to address the symptoms of depression. CBT for perinatal depression is shown to be effective at reducing symptoms. 

For people who find that commuting to therapy is a barrier to receiving appropriate care, online CBT may be a better option. A study from 2018 found that online CBT is effective for addressing depression and other psychiatric disorders. Additionally, online therapy from sites like BetterHelp enables you to use in-app messaging to connect with your therapist any time you are feeling like you need some guidance.  

Takeaway

Changes in things like hormone levels, lifestyle, and financial stability that occurs during pregnancy and early parenthood are common triggers of perinatal depression and anxiety. Taking steps to get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, get enough rest, socialize, and accept support can make perinatal depression less likely. However, if you believe you are experiencing symptoms of depression, you should seek help from a medical practitioner or licensed mental health professional. 

Prenatal and postpartum depression are common psychiatric disorders that can affect anyone of any gender or sexual orientation, and psychotherapy and/or medications are helpful for most people. Online CBT can be more convenient than in-person therapy for pregnant people and new parents, and it is shown to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

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