Perinatal distress can affect children and non-birthing parents - psychiatrist

A consultant psychiatrist says perinatal distress can impact not only the birthing parent but also partners and children.

Perinatal distress describes the depression, anxiety and stresses a parent may experience from pregnancy through to one year after the birth.

Clinical head at Counties Manukau District Health Board Dr Tanya Wright told Newshub Nation maternal mental illness doesn't just affect the birthing parent but also impacts partners and children.

From a newborn all the way to their teenage years, perinatal distress can have a significant effect on children.

Dr Wright said newborn babies can show very early signs of changed interactions with their parents, as babies look to people's faces to understand the world around them.

"A well woman will help them understand that the world is a safe place to be. Versus maybe a frightening place to be or an uncertain place to be or an anxious place to be," Dr Wright said.

The long-term impact of depression and anxiety in parents means is there are a lot more behaviour problems when the children are toddlers and it can impact a child's language and school readiness.

Dr Wright said it can also cause depression when the child is a teenager, so it is important to notice the warning signs and intervene early.

"When you intervene early, it's much easier to do something about it. To redirect the trajectory," Dr Wright said.

"Whereas if you start to be trying to repair problems downstream, you're into a whole different realm."

She said non-birthing parents can also have perinatal depression and it is important to recognise that it involves a whole group of people.

"I think that whole of society needs to view the care of women and babies differently rather than thinking that perinatal distress is a psychological problem that belongs to the woman. So I think we really need to think societally on this," Dr Wright said.

A new report by the Helen Clark Foundation has called for more to be done to put parents and babies at the heart of our healthcare system and help combat the high rate of suicide during the prenatal period.

It comes after a report released last year found suicide was the leading cause of death during pregnancy and the postnatal period in New Zealand.

The report's author Holly Walker said the report made a range of recommendations to the government to ensure parental and whānau wellbeing is supported as it’s the best way to protect perinatal mental health and help parents and babies thrive

Dr Wright said there also needs to be more community services that are appropriate and accessible for those who want them that are outside of general practitioners, as parents don't always recognise what they are experiencing is a health problem.

"I think we also want to think that mothers and babies, we want to recognize its joy and we want to think of childhood as being a beautiful time where every child has the opportunity to really flourish. Although that's not always the case now."

Dr Wright said society needs to view the care of women and babies differently, rather than viewing perinatal distress as a psychological problem that belongs to the woman. 

"I think it's really important to make the point that not all women who experience mental illness or have drug and alcohol problems are poor parents, but they have some serious additional burdens that they're carrying that make it harder for them to be doing the things that they would innately be doing or be wanting to be enjoying."