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For many women, having a baby is a joyous and exciting time. But for women with perinatal depression, it can become extremely difficult and distressing. Perinatal depression refers to depression occurring before and/or after pregnancy, whereas postpartum depression, another common condition, only occurs after childbirth.
In a new post to Instagram announcing her third pregnancy, Britney Spears revealed to fans that she suffered from perinatal depression during her previous pregnancies with her sons, Sean Preston, now 16, and Jaden James, now 15.
"People "didn't talk about it back then...some people considered it dangerous if a woman complained like that with a baby inside her," Spears wrote of the "absolutely horrible" experience. "But now women talk about it everyday."
Although Spears did not specify when she suffered from perinatal depression or what her symptoms were, the post resonated with her more than 40 million followers.
“Thank Jesus we don’t have to keep that pain a reserved proper secret," she added.
Spears isn’t alone in her mental health struggles during pregnancy. Research shows that approximately 1 in 5 pregnant people have experienced perinatal depression, which can make patients feel helpless and isolated.
What is perinatal depression?
Perinatal depression is a mood disorder involving feelings of indifference and/or anxiety, extreme sadness and changes in appetite, sleep and energy.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the condition is a serious medical illness that occurs during pregnancy or following childbirth. The blanket term refers to both prenatal depression (depression occurring during pregnancy) and postpartum depression (depression occurring after childbirth).
This is not to be mistaken with the "baby blues" — a condition that does not interfere with a person's ability to perform daily activities and only lasts a week or two. Symptoms of the baby blues may include anxiety, irritability and restlessness but typically resolve on their own.
Perinatal depression can be physically and emotionally debilitating and can often last for many months. If you suspect you have perinatal depression, it is important to seek immediate treatment.
What causes perinatal depression?
According to the Cleveland Journal of Medicine, perinatal depression is caused by a "complex interaction" of genetic and environmental factors.
Life stresses, such as demands at work or past traumas, the emotional and physical demands of childbirth and caring for a baby, and changes in hormones that occur during and after pregnancy can also contribute to the development of perinatal depression.
Who is at risk of perinatal depression?
The NIMH says that "perinatal depression is a real medical illness and can affect any mother—regardless of age, race, income, culture, or education."
Although the condition can affect anyone during or after their pregnancy, risk factors include a lack of social support, an unwanted or difficult pregnancy, an ongoing health problem with the baby or the mother, and a history of physical or sexual abuse. Additionally, women with a personal or family history of anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder are more at risk.
It is important to note that women are not to blame for having perinatal depression: it is not brought on by anything a mother has or has not done intentionally.
What are the symptoms of perinatal depression?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, common symptoms include feeling worthless or guilty, difficulty concentrating, lack of interest in the baby, feeling sad or depressed, and thinking about death or suicide.
Other symptoms include changes in appetite, increased fatigue, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, slowed movement or speech, and feelings of being a bad mother.
If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms during and/or after pregnancy, it's important to speak to a health care provider as soon as possible to determine if the symptoms are due to perinatal depression or something else.
How is perinatal depression treated?
Since perinatal depression is a medical condition, patients should see a healthcare provider or mental health professional to determine the appropriate treatment options. This is important for the health of the mother and the child, as perinatal depression puts both parties at risk. With proper care, almost all women who experience perinatal depression can overcome their symptoms.
Treatment options include medication, therapy and lifestyle changes. If these treatments do not reduce symptoms, brain stimulation therapy is another avenue to consider. Additionally, the support of friends and family, exercise, rest, proper nutrition, and joining a support group for new mothers can be helpful.
Due to the stigma around perinatal depression, some people may find it difficult to seek help. Spouses, family members, partners and friends may be the first to recognize the condition in a new mother, and can offer essential emotional support.