In the past decade, postpartum depression has been heavily studied by doctors, covered in the media, and treated in psychologists’ offices. Many new mothers know what signs to look for and feel comfortable seeking help.
But prenatal depression — depression that occurs during pregnancy — carries something of a stigma, and has received significantly less attention.
Doctors once believed that hormonal surges during pregnancy elevated a woman’s mood, and many women are still under the mistaken impression that pregnancy should yield nothing but happy feelings.
Consequently, women who experience depression during pregnancy may feel guilt, doubt their ability to be good mothers, and may not seek and receive effective treatment.
Rest assured, prenatal depression is treatable and often preventable.
As with depression that is unrelated to pregnancy, there are competing theories about the causes of prenatal depression. A combination of environmental and biochemical factors are believed to be at play.
While anyone can develop prenatal depression, a woman may be at increased risk when:
• She has previously experienced major depression. The risk increases if a woman stops taking antidepressants during pregnancy.
• The pregnancy was unplanned, or the woman has mixed feelings about the pregnancy.
• She has little social support, or a partner who is ambivalent about the pregnancy.
• She has other health problems.
• She is in an abusive relationship, or has a history of abuse.
• She experiences a major life stress, such as job loss or the death of a loved one, during the pregnancy.
Outreach programs that provide support to pregnant women are highly effective at preventing the isolation and overwhelming stress some women feel during pregnancy.
Because depression is a major risk factor, women who are pregnant or who are contemplating becoming pregnant should discuss their mental health histories with their doctors. Their physicians may be able to make recommendations about treatments that are safe during pregnancy.