Post-natal depression is widely masked in ignorance, denial and stigma. Even mothers experiencing this condition ignore it. Anelisa Dumbu, not her real name, is one such mother. Even though Anelisa had mentally prepared herself for mother-hood, she realised that she probably wasn’t ready to be a mother once she gave birth to her now eight-month old baby girl.
‘I was happy that I had a baby because it was part of the plan that I would have a baby at the age of 28. But, all of a sudden, I felt that I was not ready to have this person for the rest of my life and I felt like the baby is going to delay a lot of things in terms of my career. Every time I’m alone I would cry and even if the baby is crying, I would cry with the baby’, she says.
As days and weeks passed, Anelisa felt more and more overwhelmed. She even had unpleasant thoughts about her baby girl.
‘Yes, there were thoughts of depression. When I think about it now I feel guilty. I wanted to put my baby up for adoption. I wanted to get rid of the baby. But I did not think of killing my baby’, says Anelisa.
Unaware of what she was going through, Anelisa decided to keep things to herself as she did not think anyone nor her partner would understand. She says she was ashamed to ask for help, yet she did long for support.
‘I did not tell anyone about it, and I tried not to act as if I’m seeking attention. When there is a baby, you don’t have any time to yourself. So, I kind of needed the emotional support to be there and someone to give me a pat in the back that I am doing the right thing and that I am a good mother’, she says.
After many weeks, she eventually went to see a counsellor. With the support of counselling, Anelisa began to feel better and even had the guts to tell the father of her daughter and long-term partner, Lutando Goniwe, also not his real name, what she was going through. Although Lutando was aware of Anelisa’s emotional state, he thought nothing was wrong.
‘From my side, I don’t know anything about post-natal depression. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know its causes or its symptoms. Honestly, I thought it was one of those times, you know… when women are pregnant, they go through emotions. If I knew what she was going through I would have been more supportive’, says Lutando.
According to Debbie Levin, a social worker and head of the Gauteng branch of the Post-natal Depression Support Association of South Africa, it’s quite common that male partners are left in the dark. Levin says there is a lot of shame around post-natal depression and women tend to cover it up and pretend that everything is well.
‘Often, women don’t know themselves that they are suffering. They are in a bad mood, they are agitated, they don’t know why they’re feeling like this, and, therefore, it’s often difficult to tell somebody else. Often, they also feel their husbands won’t understand, so they don’t even attempt to explain’, she says.
Levin says post-natal depression ‘can happen anytime within the first year after they’ve given birth. Basically, moms start to see symptoms like a lot of weepiness, tiredness, not being able to sleep, waking up early’¦ just a general depressed mood’.
She warned that many women are likely to get these symptoms shortly after pregnancy. This is called ‘post-natal blues’ and should last only a few weeks. But if the symptoms persist for longer, it could be that the new mother is having a case of post-natal depression.
‘Eighty percent of women get post-natal blues, which means after the birth of the baby the hormone levels are dropping, their milk is dropping for the first time, and they have this tremendous feeling of being overwhelmed, crying a lot and a depressed mood. But this shouldn’t last more than two to three weeks’, says Levin.
She also explained that certain women are especially vulnerable to post-natal depression.
‘A lot of moms who have a tendency towards depression, generally, or anxieties, even when they are not pregnant, are much more likely to get post-natal depression after the birth of the baby. Also the perfectionist type of personality often does get post-natal depression. Women who don’t have support – perhaps they don’t have a partner or their partner has left them’, says Levin.
In a few cases, post-natal depression can lead to worst case scenarios.
‘You get something called post-natal psychosis, which is the extreme of post-natal depression. It’s very uncommon and it’s about 1% of women where they completely lose touch with themselves and with reality. You have cases where you hear of women who have killed their children… that kind of extreme’, says Levin.
Levin says finding help and taking treatment is important to help women to beat this condition.
‘I recently saw a woman where within three or four weeks she was feeling better because we managed to understand exactly what the problem was. She dealt with the problem and she was able to go on. Generally, women do need medication and therapy’, concludes Levin.