Postpartum depression can happen to anyone and its prevalence is about 10% of new mothers, said Penang Adventist Hospital consultant clinical psychologist Dr Lynne Yong. Women who miscarry or whose babies are stillborn are also susceptible to postpartum depression.
The exact cause of postpartum depression is not clear, but some of the risk factors include hormonal changes, history of mental illness, marital or financial stresses, birth complications, lack of self-confidence as a parent, problems with the baby’s health, major life changes around the time of delivery, lack of support or help with the baby or severe premenstrual syndrome.
Ignorance about postpartum depression also means many new mothers are caught unaware.
“Many of us assume giving birth is just a normal bodily process. Some husbands refuse to participate actively in child-rearing and managing a household, leaving wives to balance their new role as a mother. There is suddenly a new routine of breastfeeding, staying up all night because of a colicky baby, child-rearing and suffering body-aches and tiredness, on top of managing work and the household,” said Zeeda Aziz, who suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of her first child.
Women are expected to transition into motherhood seamlessly, and the inability to cope is often perceived as a character flaw, a sign of weakness and incompetence.
We are still a long way from recognising postpartum depression, what more seeking treatment for it.
“I think people delay or refuse to seek treatment for mental issues in general, not just for postpartum depression. The stigma is so damaging. Society and policy also play a role in deterring early treatment. For example, the general perception that seeking mental health treatment meant one is ‘crazy’ or ‘weak’ also scares people away.
“Public perception of mental illness needs to change. Also, insurance companies are biased against people suffering from mental illness. They can deny coverage if someone declared that they had a history of mental illness even when they have been well for ages. So, the fear of future discrimination deters people from seeking treatment.
“We need to fight the stigma. There is no difference between someone suffering from a physical illness versus a mental illness. Both can be treated,” said Dr Yong.
She said we can all play a role in helping new mothers. “For a start, when a friend becomes a new mother, ask them questions such as ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Are you getting enough help at home?’
“It is vital to get women to open up about their struggles, and asking questions could facilitate the process. Most importantly, you must get enough sleep, so get someone else to care for the baby while you sleep. Make sure you have your own time for yourself. Leave the baby with the father or relative and go out with your friends once in a while. Talk and share about the difficulties you face. Just remember that whatever you are feeling, chances are other new mothers have felt it too. You are not alone,” she said.
Fathers also need to be supported to enable them to play a more active role.
Following the postpartum psychosis case in Kelantan, the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) had suggested that government and private companies give new fathers a month of paternity leave so they could be of help to their spouses.
According to MTUC’s secretary general J. Solomon, longer paternity leave is a solution to postpartum depression as it enables fathers to take better care of their family.
The existing paternity leave allowance in the government sector is seven days, while some private companies offer two days.
“It’s really about changing the conversation and educating people on the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression. Stop it from escalating to postpartum psychosis,” stressed Dr Yong.
Because to some women, it is a matter of life and death.
If you are suffering from depression and need someone to talk to, call
Hotline: 03-7956 8144 or
03-7956 8145 (24 hours a day)