New data shows demand for perinatal mental health support in the twelve months to June 2022 exceeded pre-COVID levels, with mums and dads experiencing significant psychological and physical challenges from trying to care for a new baby without enough support.
Released by leading national mental health organisation Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) for Perinatal Mental Health Week (happening now), the data shows a 0.3 per cent increase in demand over the 12 months to June 2022, on top of a 45 per cent increase in demand during the pandemic.
PANDA CEO Julie Borninkhof said that while the change over the last twelve months is small, there was an expectation that demand would ease as COVID restrictions were lifted, when in fact demand continues to grow.
‘PANDA did not see the expected reduction in demand for its services when COVID restrictions started easing,’ she said.
Online and phone demand also growing
The data revealed a 23 per cent national increase in callers to PANDA’s Perinatal Mental Health Helpline. In addition, more than 30,000 Australians completed PANDA’s online mental health checklist over the past twelve months, which was slightly higher than the number who completed the checklist in 2020-21.
‘Parents are experiencing a range of challenges around cost of living, economic factors and global events at a time when they are vulnerable and are often quietly trying to manage anxiety, depression or other perinatal mental health issues,’ said Ms Borninkhof.
‘Of the callers to PANDA’s Helpline, 63 per cent had not even spoken to their partner about how they felt, while 83 per cent had not consulted a doctor or health professional.’
Ms Borninkhof said one of the single most effective things expecting parents could do to protect their mental health is put in place ‘communities of care’, so they have a safety net of support in place as a new parent.
‘It’s a good idea to have varied support people in place at this time,’ she said.
This is why PANDA’s Perinatal Mental Health week campaign is focused on encouraging and helping expecting and new parents to proactively build a community of care around them.
It takes a village…
‘This community of care can include relationships with health care providers, trusted friends, other parents through playgroups and new parent groups, online parent support groups and mental health and care providers,’ said Ms Borkinkhof.
‘Based on the experience of callers to our Helpline, we know you can’t always self-care your way out of perinatal mental health distress.
‘It’s important to consider how you can build a caring community that you can call on as a new parent when you need it, but that can also check in on you.’
One in five new mums and one in ten new dads are affected by perinatal depression and anxiety, which impact approximately 100,000 families in Australia each year.
PANDA witnessed first-hand how communities changed during COVID with fewer face-to-face healthcare visits and contact with friends and family taking a different form.
Four in five new mums responding to PANDA’s mental health checklist in 2021-22 felt disconnected from their friends and family at some point, while 40 per cent of them said they felt disconnected from their baby.
When it came to expecting mums, two thirds felt disconnected from their pregnancy and/or baby at some point, while 80 per cent felt more disconnected from friends and family during the perinatal period.
For new dads, 80 per cent of respondents to the mental health checklist experienced a sense of disconnection from their friends and family, and almost half felt disconnected from their baby.
‘These thoughts and feelings are very normal for new parents, but they can be hard to talk about and it can be difficult for parents to reach out to others and let them know they are finding new parenthood challenging,’ said Ms Borninkhof.
‘Parents need to find their own way of tapping into the communities of care that work for them, ideally starting before the baby is born. Preparing a community care plan is as important as all other birth preparations and will ensure the support is in place from day one,’ she said.
‘Mothers are telling us that they used to feel they had to do it all by themselves and letting people help them meant they were failing as a mother. That often leads to burn out, and not being able to be as present as they want to be for their children.
‘We encourage parents to ask themselves “who can help me?” To new parents, we say, build your community and talk to them early about what you are feeling and what you may need in the future.’
Reach out sooner rather than later
Ms Borninkhof encouraged people to reach out to PANDA early. ‘If people aren’t sure if what they are feeling is normal, or if they need some extra support or reassurance, please reach out,’ she said.
‘We are here to help and there are other organisations to support as well. We are here to be a part of expecting and new parents’ community of care, and can help them build it.’
Anyone having trouble coping with pregnancy or being a new parent, or wanting help with building their community of care, can visit panda.org.au or call the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306 Mon to Sat, 9am -7.30pm.
Lifeline is on 13 11 14 (24/7) or lifeline.org.au.
For more information about Perinatal Mental Health Week, please visit panda.org.au/awareness/perinatal-mental-health-week.