Non-medical approaches for antenatal and postnatal depression

Many parents experienced significant distress during pregnancy and/or after having a baby. Some received a diagnosis of antenatal or postnatal depression, while others self-identified as experiencing these conditions. A few did not experience antenatal or postnatal depression, but were concerned that they might.

Parents mentioned a range of non-medical approaches to both preventing and addressing antenatal and postnatal distress and/or depression. These included counselling, support groups, meditation, mindfulness, nutrition and diet, pre-natal or 'mums and bubs' yoga, and exercise.

Some parents were worried they might experience antenatal or postnatal depression. Reasons given for these concerns included a family history of mental health-related issues, prior personal experience of depression or anxiety, emotional distress during pregnancy, fertility treatment, or limited social support.

Some parents took active steps to try to minimise the likelihood of perinatal depression, including watching their diet during pregnancy and familiarising themselves with available perinatal mental health support centres. Although an unusual practice in Australia, Josie, a mother of a young baby, had her placenta dried, powdered and turned into tablets which she took after the birth. She had read online about the practice and said the claimed benefits 'were endless and I thought if only half of them were true, I was just willing to give it a go'.

Due to a history of 'depressive phases', Zara was careful about her physical and emotional health during pregnancy.

Josie decided to take tablets made out of her placenta after the birth to protect against postnatal depression.

A few parents who experienced distress while expecting a child were worried that this might lead to postnatal depression. 'Warning signs' such as anger and feeling overwhelmed during his wife's second pregnancy alerted Fred that he needed 'some communication', so he told his wife and male friends how he was feeling. Maree, a mother of two, was diagnosed with antenatal depression when she was pregnant with her second baby, and made plans to see her counsellor after the birth if she felt she needed to.

As a result of feeling 'awful' during pregnancy, Susanne had a mental health plan in place.

Most parents we talked to who experienced perinatal distress or depression accessed counselling provided by psychologists, psychiatrists or other counsellors (see also Experiences with health professionals for antenatal and postnatal depression).

Many mothers and fathers felt positive about their experiences of counselling and described the benefits they felt from talking to someone who was not a family member or friend. Having space to talk about their experiences was helpful, as was gaining useful advice. Andrew, a father of four and a stay-at-home parent, said talking to a psychologist helped him learn to 'let go and not sweat the small stuff so much'. Several others said it helped them deal with challenging emotions such as anger, or helped them to cope better with their babies or older children.

Cecilia, whose relationship broke down following the birth of her child, said talking to her psychologist was 'therapeutic'.

A few parents had mixed feelings about counselling. For some, seeing a psychologist was difficult because they felt it meant acknowledging that something was 'wrong'. A few parents mentioned the importance of feeling understood by their counsellor, and felt this was more likely if the counsellor had children or was older. Several parents consulted more than one psychologist before finding one who was 'right' for them.

Elizabeth asked her GP for a referral to a different psychologist after being dissatisfied with the first one she saw.

Some mothers and fathers needed to see a psychologist or counsellor only briefly, while others had counselling over several years, including Cecilia who saw her psychologist over four years.

Georgia found counselling very helpful but said eight sessions was 'enough'.

Feeling that early parenthood had strained their relationships with their partners, Rumer and Lara each had relationship counselling and found this useful. Several partners of women who were admitted to Mother and Baby Units for postnatal depression attended 'dads' sessions' at the hospital. Michelle, a mother of one, said the group session her husband attended helped him appreciate 'what was going on in my head and [understand postnatal depression] as something that other people go through as well'.

A few parents participated in support groups for postnatal depression. These proved to be a valuable resource, especially for those who wanted to connect with or help others with similar experiences.

Melissa described attending a support group for mothers experiencing postnatal depression.

Some parents who had experienced depression or distress during pregnancy or early parenthood were interested in 'holistic' approaches. For some, this meant combining antidepressant medication with non-pharmacological approaches. Zara experienced postnatal depression after both her two children and described combining 'medication and psychotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy' with getting out in the sunlight'. Chelsea, a mother of one, commented that it was important to take antidepressants in conjunction with other treatment, such as counselling, as otherwise in her view 'you're just taking medication but you're not actually working through your situation'.

Several men and women preferred not to take antidepressants, for various reasons (see Experiences of medication for antenatal and postnatal depression). Instead they opted for complementary and alternative treatments. Maree did not want to take medication for antenatal depression because she was pregnant, so she increased her vitamin intake and improved her diet.

Lara described taking St John's Wort as part of an overall 'holistic' approach to deal with her 'low mood' in early parenthood.

A few parents focused on exercise, diet and cognitive techniques, including meditation and mindfulness, to manage antenatal or postnatal depression and distress. Andrew was influenced by Buddhism philosophies, which he said helped him realise that 'the answers to our problems are in our own head. So as hard as it can be, you've just got to change the way you think, and try and sort of step outside yourself a little bit and see'.

Kate had learned from previously experiencing depression that exercise was vital for helping her to manage her mood.