Loneliness Greatly Contributes to Depression During, After Pregnancy

Loneliness caused by stigma and a feeling of sudden disconnection appears to play a central role in depression in expectant and new mothers, a study finds.

Perinatal depression (PND) is a major depressive episode that occurs during pregnancy, or within four weeks after childbirth, and can last up to a year. The condition affects 10% to 20% of women in the United States.

History of depression, poor social support or relationship quality are known risk factors for PND, among others. But few studies have focused on the link between loneliness and perinatal depression thus far.

After examining accounts from 537 women from 27 studies, researchers at University College London (UCL) found that many expectant and new mothers with depression experienced loneliness.

"Having a baby is a period of huge transition and upheaval, that can involve losing touch with people and existing networks, such as work colleagues. This research suggests that loneliness is a major risk for mental health problems during pregnancy and for new mothers," says lead author Katherine Adlington, M.A., (UCL Psychiatry and East London NHS Foundation Trust).

Stigma was one of the causes of loneliness during pregnancy. For example, many women reported a fear of being judged as a "bad mother," which contributed to them hiding their symptoms and led to self-isolation and withdrawal.

Many women reported a sudden sense of emotional disconnection after birth, from their previous lives before getting pregnant, from other mothers, and from the baby. Others said they received less support from their partner, family, and their community than expected.

The researchers found mothers from disadvantaged communities to carry a double burden due to increased stigma and decreased social support. This could be addressed by providing more targeted support that is culturally appropriate and without language barriers.

The study, published in BMC Psychiatry, also looked at potential solutions. Many women said validation and understanding from clinical staff could help to alleviate their loneliness. Meanwhile, support from other mothers with PND would be helpful, but only if those mothers had similar experiences.

Women with perinatal depression may experience feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, worthlessness, and fatigue, sometimes so severe that it makes it difficult to carry out daily tasks.

Perinatal depression is not to be confused with "baby blues," defined as mood changes and feelings of unhappiness, anxiety, or exhaustion in the first two weeks after giving birth. About four in five new mothers experience this phenomenon. If such feelings don’t go away in two weeks, a woman may have postpartum depression.

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