birth of a child is often a time of anxiety for both parents and a source of physical, emotional, and mental strain for the soon to be mother. Within a short amount of time however, family members usually become accustomed to new sleeping schedules, different routines, and even occasional moments of mild depression or mood swings. Their lives quickly return to normal, and their emotions become stable, which allows them to experience the joy of having a newborn child.
For nearly ten percent of new mothers and over thirty percent of all mothers, however, the feelings of mild depression and periods of mood swings do not disappear (Verkerk, 2005). This lingering sense of depression and anguish is known as postpartum depression, and is an extremely misunderstood, misdiagnosed mental illness that plagues thousands of women each year. Untreated, postpartum depression can become a nightmare for the women who experience it, and can be the cause of drastic, even devastating consequences.
This paper discusses the various types of postpartum depression, and will outline the symptoms of each form of the disease. Further, this paper will discuss post partum depression in males following the birth of their child. Finally, the causes, treatments, and preventions for this illness will be analyzed in detail in order to discover the nature of this often-misunderstood illness.
References to postpartum depression date as far back as 460 B.C., when Hippocrates described postpartum fever. In his description, Hippocrates described "agitation, delirium, and attacks of mania" in women, following the birth of children. Further historical reference can be seen in 11th century gynecologist Trotula of Salerno's statements of "involuntary" tears following the birth of children (Miller, 2002). Clearly, the issue of depression following childbirth is not a new concept, and has existed for centuries.
Today's medical researchers, however, have advanced far beyond this primitive description of postpartum depression, and have come to differentiate between three very distinct phases of the disease. The first of these is considered the mildest form of the illness, and is known as the postpartum blues, or "baby blues." According to some researchers, this mild depression is experienced by nearly two-thirds of mothers following childbirth (Ainsworth, 2000). Within one to five days of delivery, some women develop feelings of sadness or rapid mood swings. Often, these individuals suddenly cry without clear reasons, experience insomnia or extreme fatigue, and experience alterations in their appetites (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004). Additional feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy can also be experienced (Ainsworth, 2000).
Typically, the sufferers of postpartum blues recover on their own. They often recognize their irrational behavior, and may feel slightly out of touch with reality, but can generally cope with their rapidly altering moods. The symptoms last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and does not require any form of treatment, other than empathy and support from loved ones (Ainsworth, 2000). While the cause of postpartum blues is unknown, some medical professionals believe contributing factors to be the abrupt alterations of hormones following the birth of a child, and the increased feelings of responsibility (Miller, 2002).
While postpartum blues is certainly a stressful experience, true postpartum depression is far different, and far more problematic. Following both childbirth and unsuccessful pregnancies, some women develop potentially severe depression, known as postpartum depression. Some researchers have estimated that this form of the illness affects as many as twenty percent of all mothers following childbirth (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004).
Postpartum depression can be divided into two stages, those of early-onset and late-onset (Ainsworth, 2000). With early-onset, the symptoms of depression develop between the first few days to a few weeks following the birth. While the symptoms are more pronounced that those of postpartum blues, early onset depression is still considered a mild depression disorder. Sufferers may feel despondent, anxious, fatigued, and irritable. Uncontrollable crying may occur, as can feelings of unexplained guilt and feelings of inadequacy (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004).
In addition to these mental symptoms, early onset postpartum depression can also present its self in physical symptoms (Ainsworth, 2000). Headaches, numbness of extremities, hyperventilation, and occasional chest pain are often complaints of sufferers. These, combined with the depression, can result in some loss of bonding between the mother and child, and can lead to feelings of resentment and anger (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004). These symptoms can last from a few months, to years (Miller, 2002).
Late onset postpartum depression is even more severe. The distinction between this and early onset is that the late onset form of the disease does not occur until several weeks following childbirth, and involves far more intense emotional instability. This form of the disease is marked by severe and intense sadness, chronic fatigue, loss of sexual drive, dangerous depression, and severe weight change. Appetite is often decreased or increased tremendously, and concentration is diminished (Ainsworth, 2000). Physical symptoms also occur with late onset postpartum depression, such as those experienced by early onset suffers, with additional symptoms of hair loss, eye problems, and acne (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004).
Sufferers from late onset postpartum depression often treat their children negatively or at least without feelings of affection. The mother may feel resentment, anger, and even hatred toward the child, and as a result, the normal bonding process is altered. This alone can cause perpetual and circular feelings of guilt and sorrow, as the child will become more negative (Miller, 2002). As with early onset, late onset depression can last for years.
The cause of postpartum depression, as with postpartum blues, is unknown. However, the severity of the emotional components and the appearance of physical symptoms suggest more than one factor. Many researchers believe that along with the hormonal changes present in postpartum blues, the fatigue of caring for a newborn, a sense of isolation and fear, and the sense of loss following birth combine to form this more severe form of mental illness (Ainsworth, 2000).
The final type of postpartum depression noted by researchers is that of postpartum psychosis. This form of the disease is far more dangerous and pronounced than any other form. While the disease is relatively rare, studies do indicate that one in 1000 mothers who give birth are affected (Miller, 2002). Postpartum psychosis tends to occur most often in women suffering from other forms of mental illness, such as bipolar depression, schizophrenia, or manic depression. This is not to say, however, than only these women are affected, for there are certainly a number of mothers whose first psychotic episode occurs following a live birth (British Columbia Reproductive Mental Health Program, 2000).
Symptoms of psychosis are varied, and extreme. The emotional symptoms include intense confusion, extreme fatigue, agitation, severe mood swings, feelings of hopelessness, shame, and anger. As for physical symptoms, a disturbed sleep process, balance problems, alterations in eating habits and disorganization tend to occur (British Columbia Reproductive Mental Health Program, 2000).
With postpartum psychosis, however, the most problematic symptoms are the mental problems. Often, women with psychosis have a disorganized thought process far different from their healthy states. Some begin to hear voices, have delusions of power, or believe that someone is out to harm them (British Columbia Reproductive Mental Health Program, 2000). Some begin to develop rapid speech patterns, and mania (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004). Still others have suicidal thoughts, or homicidal thoughts towards the new child or other family members. While some researchers feel this homicidal tendency actually reflects a need to protect the child from the horrors of the world, this finding is as of yet theoretical only (Ainsworth, 2000).
Postpartum psychosis generally begins within two to four weeks following the delivery of a child, and can last a lifetime (Ainsworth, 2000). If untreated, drastic and often tragic results can occur. Since the syndrome is still an often misunderstood disease, it is imperative that women already known to have a depressive illness or other type of mental illness be monitored closely during birth and in the timeframe immediately following birth to assist them in determining their illness (British Columbia Reproductive Mental Health Program, 2000).
With all forms of postpartum depression, reoccurrences are likely. If a female suffers from postpartum blues following the birth of her first child, for example, she is far more likely to experience it or one of the more serious forms of the disease following childbirth in the future (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004). Further, many women find it difficult to discern between milder forms of the disease and the more serious forms, particularly if they have experienced postpartum blues previously (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2004). As such, women who have experienced these illnesses in previous pregnancies should also be monitored during future pregnancies.
Postpartum depression is certainly a serious issue for new mothers, but recent research also suggests that new fathers are susceptible to the disease, as well. For new fathers, depression can be sympathetic, in response to the new mother's depression. In other cases, however, the males can experience their own forms of…