Bringing a new baby into the world can be a joyous experience, but it can also bring stress and mental health challenges for new mothers. Some often experience unexpected feelings of extreme sadness, hopelessness, anger, anxiety, and insomnia, are unable to cope, and have difficulty bonding with their child. These could be signs of postpartum depression, which occurs during pregnancy or in the first year after giving birth. It can last for several months or even years.
While postpartum depression is a common occurrence around the world, it is also quite prevalent in Mzansi’s townships, with mothers often facing additional barriers to seeking help due to a lack of understanding of postpartum depression. Limited access to education and mental health facilities can exacerbate the problem.
The struggle is real in Mzansi
Compared to the global rate which sits at approximately 12%, between 21% and 47% of South African women experience depression during pregnancy, and between 31% and 50% reportedly suffer from postpartum depression.
Coming from a small town in the Eastern Cape, Siphokazi Mpongoma knew she was not herself and that there was something wrong with her mental health after giving birth. However, due to a lack of information, she had no name for what she was going through. Social media helped her put a label on what she was feeling.
Mpongoma describes her experience seeking help as tiring. No one understood her and her condition, so it created more anger until she learned how to vent and write things down when it is hard to speak.
‘I felt unloved’
“Postpartum depression made me isolate myself from people because I felt unloved and unnoticed. I pushed people away because it mostly made me angry, and I was always on edge and ready to fight.
“I stopped seeking treatment and just went to church, and luckily the bishop from my church recognised me and started talking to me and advising me. I slowly started to accept my life as it is and started seeing the angel I gave birth to. We are now best friends; my daughter is a mini-me, and I see more of myself in her,” Mpongoma says.
For Vuyiseka Jack from Durban, having a miscarriage after being involved in a car accident deeply hurt her. Finding out she is pregnant again soon after that made her realise she has not healed from the incident and is not ready to become a mother. She opted for an abortion and found out on the day of giving birth that it was unsuccessful, creating stress, anger, and hatred, which led to severe postpartum depression.
“Just after giving birth to my daughter, I felt angry and anxious and I did not want her anywhere near me, especially when she cried. I did not know what to do with her.
“I started drinking a lot, which was unusual for me. Luckily, my mother saw the signs and encouraged me to seek help. I eventually decided to go to therapy and begin my therapy process,” she says.
Getting the help you need
After attending therapy, Jack was admitted to a mental health institution for a couple of weeks. She also attended anger and emotional management programmes with the support of her partner, mother, and siblings.
“Being admitted to a mental health institution was embarrassing at first because I became a laughing stock; I was called the lunatic or nutcase, and that broke me. My psychiatrist was helpful and made me understand that it was not something to be ashamed of. I never asked for it, and it will eventually subside,” Jack says.
“However, things are better now, I live on antidepressants to date. My daughter and I get along just fine now. I no longer feel as distant as before, and I’m starting to become a better mother to her. There is truly life after postpartum depression through being brave and seeking help,“ adds Jack.
Reaching out as soon as possible
Sbongile Tshabalala from Orange Farm in Gauteng, who is still suffering from postpartum depression and in the process of healing, started suffering from it after her mother’s passing. Even though there is not enough awareness, she says one should seek professional help as soon as possible.
“Though I haven’t decided on which treatment to take and am in the process of seeking therapy, I’m being supported and talking to people close to me in the meantime,” says Tshabalala.
Breaking the silence and stigma
Bongiwe Dumezweni-Ntakumba, a mental fitness coach from Hartbeespoort, did not personally struggle with postpartum depression, but having battled with depression, it is a subject she is interested in because of the silence and stigma around it.
“As a mother of two, I am able to put myself in the shoes of these women, especially those who have no social or family support. Whilst I had a strong support system, they could not take away the sleepless nights and fatigue. I cannot imagine how those without that support navigate this journey,” she mentions.
According to psychologist Angel Khumalo from Utrecht in KwaZulu-Natal, postpartum depression can occur in the first few months after birth and can also happen after a miscarriage or stillbirth. She states it is an emergency because, if left untreated, it can quickly deteriorate and endanger you or others.
Symptoms and treatment
“Postpartum depression is characterised by feelings of sadness or hopelessness, as well as a loss of enjoyment in life. Other symptoms may include difficulty sleeping or a loss of appetite,” explains Khumalo.
“Thus, the changes in hormone levels that occur after pregnancy appear to be the cause of postpartum depression. There are factors that can raise one’s chances of getting it, such as a history of depression, a lack of support, or a high level of stress.”
Although postpartum depression can be isolating, stressful, and frightening, help and effective treatment are available, says Khumalo.
“Counselling and antidepressant medications are used to manage postpartum depression. Women suffering from mild depression may benefit from counselling alone. However, many women require both,” she says.
Khumalo shares the following advice:
- Try to eat healthy, exercise often, and get some sleep. Most importantly, seek help from family, friends, and professional practitioners.
- Talk to your family and friends about your feelings and what they can do to help, make time for yourself to do things you enjoy, rest whenever you can, get as much sleep as you can at night, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet are all things you can try on your own.
- Talking therapy: A general practitioner (GP) may be able to propose a self-help course or refer you for a course of treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
- Therapy (CBT) antidepressants: If your depression is severe or other forms of therapy have failed, your doctor may advise you to try one of these.
“Depression during pregnancy is called antepartum or prenatal depression, and depression after pregnancy is called postpartum depression. There is no shame in seeking help; we should understand that no one plans or chooses to have depression and support one another,” Khumalo says.
If you or someone close to you need help, please call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on 0800 567 567 or check out their website.
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