By Margaret Howard, PhD, division director of the Center for Women’s Behavioral Health and the associate director of the Women’s Mental Health Fellowship at Women & Infants Hospital

Did you know that one in five people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime?  Like physical health, good mental health is essential to every individual’s well-being. This May, during National Mental Health Awareness Month, we are taking the opportunity to focus on depression in women, as it is one of the most common mental health issues women face.

While mental health issues can plague both genders, they do affect men and women in very different ways. It’s estimated that 12 million women experience depression each year in the United States. This occurs at twice the rate of men.

Although the reason for the difference in prevalence is not entirely clear, it is well-documented that women of child-bearing age are most vulnerable to experiencing an initial or repeat episode of depression. Hormonal fluctuations may be some of the reason for this effect. For example, the most common time for a woman to experience depression is during the perinatal period — either during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period.

Following childbirth, a reported 10 to 15 percent of new mothers meet criteria for major depression, with anxiety typically being a prominent feature.

Signs and symptoms of depression after childbirth can vary, and range from mild to severe. These may include:

  • Depressed mood, severe mood swings, or excessive crying.
  • Withdrawing from family and friends and difficulties bonding with your baby.
  • Loss of appetite or eating much more than usual.
  • Inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much.
  • Overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy or restlessness.
  • Reduced interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Intense irritability and anger or fear that you’re not a good mother.
  • Hopelessness and feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy.
  • Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions.
  • Severe anxiety and panic attacks.
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby.

Those suffering from depression may not be aware of the signs. If you suspect that a friend or loved one has depression, postpartum or otherwise, assist them in seeking medical attention immediately.  Left untreated, depression can be a life-threatening condition and may last for many months or longer. Treatment works. Studies have shown that 80 percent of patients noticed a significant mood improvement during and after treatment.

To reach Care New England’s 24/7 hotline for support on behavioral health and addiction services, call 1 (844) 401-0111. To learn more about women’s behavioral health, and the programs available at Women & Infants Hospital, visit womenandinfants.org/services/behavioral-health.  For all of Care New England’s behavioral health programs, including Butler Hospital, Kent Hospital, and The Providence Center, go to carenewengland.org/services/behavioral-health.

Margaret Howard, PhD, is the division director of the Center for Women’s Behavioral Health and the associate director of the Women’s Mental Health Fellowship at Women & Infants Hospital. She is also a professor of psychiatry and human behavior and medicine, clinician educator at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.