More mums of older children are living with depression than those experiencing postnatal depression.
A study by the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI) states that 15 per cent of mothers experience depression four years after giving birth. Within the group of 1500 women who participated in the research, around 10 per cent showed depressive symptoms in the first year postpartum.
PANDA reports an average of 14 per cent of new mums experiencing postnatal depression within the first year.
Mental health challenges can get tougher
Postnatal depression is prevalent because it comes with a major life transition, but the secret that parents are hiding is that the transitions and challenges don’t end there.
“As the years go on, everything continues to accumulate and compound; women go on to have more children, life gets harder, and there are more demands the older your kids get,” explains Kirstin Bouse, clinical psychologist and author of The Conscious Mother.
“We fail to recognise that every developmental stage in your child’s life has those emotional and practical consequences and realities to it.”
“Children at different stages bring stuff up for us personally as parents and as people.”
Those demands include the transition of a child starting school, pushing boundaries, taking on extra activities and balancing work with the busy lives of kids. Mums are also supporting their children through emotional, physical and social changes and the associated exhausted meltdowns.
“It gets busier and you have to wear a lot more hats, which puts enormous strain on your own wellbeing,” says Bouse.
There are also times in a child’s life that are particularly difficult for each parent. “Some parents are particularly great with older children while others are tearing their hair out,” says Bouse. “Children at different stages bring stuff up for us personally as parents and as people.”
As all these challenges increase, the support mums receive often decreases. “Not only do you see your healthcare providers less after that first year,” explains Sarah Hausler, women’s health occupational therapist at Bloom Wellbeing, “but you may also lose contact with more informal supports, such as mothers’ group friends, as women start heading back to work.”
Hausler adds that all this pressure can be simply too much: “So many women experience chronic stress and overwhelm, due to the huge amount of expectation and competitiveness placed on mothers in today's society.”
There are other factors; the MCRI research states the major risk factors for mums with depression four years after giving birth include previous depressive symptoms and stressful life events between pregnancy and the four-year mark.
The Aboriginal Families Study adds to this picture: 52 per cent of Indigenous women experience three or more stressful social health issues during pregnancy (compared with 18 per cent of non-Indigenous women), making those risk factors for later depression astonishingly high.
Awareness and support will, perhaps, increase over time if we continue to talk about the issues we’re facing. “Society goes through this process of growing up: we’re in the early stages of recognising that those early years of motherhood are really demanding,” Bouse says, “and the next stage of our maturation as a society is to recognise that this continues, and that we still need to be supporting one another.”
What can we do about it?
We know our kids need people around them who they can turn to, however let’s think outside the square a little – because it isn’t just the kids who need that community.
The MCRI research recommends increasing formal support mechanisms to monitor mums’ mental health throughout those first four years.
It's important, however, for these services to take into account the specific challenges of different mothers. According to Beyondblue, Indigenous mums can find it difficult to access help due to financial stress, transport problems and a lack of services in rural areas.
“Create your own village."
There are also less formal ways in which we all need to pull together to help the parents in our lives.
Some mums have lots of family and close friends around, but if that isn’t your reality then all hope isn’t lost. “Create your own village,” Bouse advises. “Develop friendships with other people who don’t have family support, and you can all support one another.
"There’s a collective responsibility there: we want this group of kids to go well and we want this to happen for our kids and ourselves, so how can we do it together?”
The internet is also proving an important tool for parents who need additional support. Medela recently surveyed 4000 mums and found that 45 per cent overcome difficult times by heading to online forums and support groups to read the experiences of others, a method that was more popular than consulting their doctor or midwife.
Sure, it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to raise parents to a point at which they can cope and, hopefully, thrive.