Recovery and getting better after antenatal and postnatal depression

A number of parents who were either diagnosed with or self-identified as experiencing perinatal depression and/or distress and anxiety talked about various aspects of getting better and recovery, and about how their experiences had changed them.

For many, the first ‘sign’ of getting better was enjoying their children, or at least not being ‘stressed’ by them – something that they had struggled with while experiencing emotional distress and/or perinatal depression. Susanne commented: ‘From about six months on, it really turned a corner for us, for me, in terms of just being able to relax and enjoy – my daughter’s just unbelievable to be around … I feel a lot more comfortable with my role as a mother’.

Most parents found that a combination of strategies helped them to recover from perinatal depression. When Andrew experienced depression after becoming a stay-at-home father of three young children, he saw a psychologist, improved his diet, and cut back on wine and coffee. He compared this response with that taken during a prior ‘episode’ of depression: ‘I think this time I’ve taken a more whole approach, instead of just a tablet, and sort of trying to change everything for everyone’s benefit. And it has worked’.

For Deb, recovery was ongoing. She said antidepressants, seeing a psychiatrist, and her own efforts to avoid getting overly stressed had helped.

In contrast, a few parents singled out one particular factor they felt was key to them getting better following postnatal depression. Sara L thought her (self-identified) postnatal depression stemmed from a difficult labour and birth, then having an unsettled baby with silent reflux. However, as she explained: ‘by three months it was okay … by that stage he became a really good sleeper. Everything got a lot better’.

Elly found returning to work part-time had the effect of ‘lifting’ her mood, and restored a sense of ‘balance’.

A few parents identified family and other social support as helpful in overcoming their postnatal depression or distress. Particular mention was made of partners, mothers, friends, and support groups (see Social support during antenatal and postnatal depression). Chandrika, an immigrant mother, experienced profound distress after moving to Australia with her husband and baby and was grateful when her mother came from Sri Lanka to help her. Her experience, shared by Joanne and Ajay whose parents also visited from overseas, emphasises the importance of support overseas families provide to relatives in Australia. This support is particularly valuable in the early stages of parenting and for those experiencing distress or postnatal depression.

Chandrika described a gradual process of feeling better as she got used to living in Australia, helped by her mother coming from Sri Lanka to assist her.

A few women experienced perinatal depression more than once and commented on the differences between each ‘episode’. Overcoming it the first time provided hope of recovery after experiencing it a second time or helped them recognise signs of depression the second time and seek support.

Zara contrasted her more recent ’bout’ of postnatal depression after her second child with her experience after her first child, which she felt she was ‘on the way’ to recovery from.

Anna had two experiences of postnatal depression after her daughter was born. She described the importance of combining professional help with broader social support to helping her to get better, along with her own efforts to alleviate her distress.

A number of parents identified experiencing emotional distress around the birth and first few months of parenthood, but did not describe or perceive this as postnatal depression. They described beginning to feel better after seeking professional support such as counselling, learning meditation or mindfulness techniques, taking St John’s Wort, spending time with friends and family, making more time for themselves, or seeking out other ‘like-minded’ parents.

Maree and Fred who each experienced antenatal depression found being able to connect with others (counsellors and people on-line in Maree’s case, and for Fred his wife and friends) helped them to feel better and begin to look forward to their babies’ respective births.

Maree was diagnosed with antenatal depression during her pregnancy with her second child. She was worried she would go on to experience postnatal depression but felt she had ‘mostly recovered’ by about six weeks out from the birth.

A few mothers diagnosed with postnatal depression waited until their babies’ health, feeding or sleeping patterns were resolved before addressing their own mental health. As Melissa said: ‘I know it’s very important, you have to worry about yourself because if you don’t, you can’t look after your child. But I just knew that I couldn’t worry about myself until my son was settled – the lack of sleep wasn’t good for him’.

Several mothers felt they had not yet fully recovered from postnatal depression, describing periods of feeling better followed by going ‘downhill’ again. Some wondered if they would ever fully recover.

Although Georgia was feeling much better, she felt that postnatal depression would ‘probably always be an up and down job’.

Many parents said the experience of postnatal depression had transformed them and their approach to life and ideas about what was important. Some felt overcoming the challenges posed by their experience of perinatal depression had made them ‘stronger’.

Tina talked about growing stronger as a person and developing broader social networks as a result of her experience of postnatal depression (self-identified).

Experiencing perinatal depression made a couple of women reassess their views of mental health and mental illness. Georgia said: ‘Before this I never had an appreciation of how people could do some of these things they do when they say they have a mental illness. But since having this, I’m very different. I can totally understand where they’re coming from’.

Although Elizabeth changed her views about ‘mental health issues’ following her experience of postnatal depression, she was reluctant to talk about her own experience as felt there was still ‘stigma attached to mental illness’.

Several mothers felt that experiencing postnatal depression had made them become more ‘open’ and more able to be ‘vulnerable’. Andrew found the experience of both depression and being a stay-at-home father shifted the dynamics of his marriage: ‘This past eight months there’s certainly been a lot more communication … once I’d opened up about what I was experiencing here, and what I needed. That’s what it all comes down to is communication. No-one can read your mind and understand what you want, so you have to vocalise it and ask for help when you need to’.

Anna described how postnatal depression had removed her fear of being ‘vulnerable in front of others’ and made her realise that asking for help did not imply ‘failure’ as she had felt previously.

Most parents who were either diagnosed or self-identified as experiencing perinatal depression said learning that many others had similar experiences had reassured them they were ‘not alone’. Learning that it was ‘ok to ask for help’ was also important, and they were determined to do so in future. Some parents had decided to not have any more children as a result of experiencing postnatal depression.

Chelsea talked about the ‘upside to postnatal depression’ and why she and her husband were content with one child only.

Several women who were open to having another child commented that they would do things differently, and as Tina said, ‘try to be more stress-free … try to take it easier’ around their babies. Elizabeth said: ‘I’m hoping that having had the postnatal depression that at least it’s brought me to a better place within myself in that I can see that I don’t need to be a perfect parent all the time, I can see that it is really hard work and that that’s okay, that other people experience that too, it’s not just me.’

Others felt torn between a desire to share their experiences of perinatal depression with others through volunteering, and a need to prioritise their own ‘mental health’ or happiness.

Tony said once he started prioritising his own happiness and ended a troubled relationship with his daughter’s mother, things began to ‘get better’ for both him and his ex-partner.

For many, sharing their experiences honestly through participating in this study was an important way of helping others in a similar situation. Anna described feeling empowered to admit that: ‘this motherhood business is not as fun as I thought it was going to be sometimes. And absolutely amazing other times’.