Mum-to-be Anne Theriault had a secret. A secret so grave that it left her crippled with anxiety, crying into her pillowcase for hours at a time and unable to work.
“Everyone kept gushing to me about how this must be the happiest time in my life. I felt like a monster,” she says. Five years later, Ms Theriault says “even the smallest reminder of what my pregnancy was like can leave me shaking and weeping”.
Her secret was a battle with antenatal depression, a rarely discussed pregnancy condition that can be debilitating for sufferers. But despite the lack of awareness, they are far from alone – it’s estimated to affect 10 per cent of mums to be.
In an article for The Daily Dot, Ms Theriault describes being convinced there was something wrong with her son, despite all evidence to the contrary: a perfect 12-week ultrasound; just as perfect follow-up scans; strong fetal movements; and on-track development.
“In spite of all the reassurance I received about my son’s health and growth, I remained convinced that he was in danger and it was my fault,” she writes.
The Post and Antenatal Depression Association says all women experience some mood variation during pregnancy, and some anxiety is normal. But for one in 10, it becomes a significant problem. Symptoms of antenatal depression can include inability to concentrate and remember, difficulty making decisions, feeling emotionally numb, sleep problems, extreme irritability, severe anxiety about the pregnancy and becoming a parent, extreme fatigue, weight loss, persistent sadness, feelings of guilt or failure and thoughts of suicide or death.
In Ms Theriault’s case, the thoughts started three weeks after conception – before she’d even had a pregnancy test. She had some bleeding – common early in the first trimester – and became convinced her baby was unsafe.
She had panic attacks at least once a week, avoided all manner of foods and even went to great measures to avoid cats, fearing they would give her toxoplasmosis. If she ate soup made with red wine vinegar, she’d obsess over whether her child now had fetal alcohol syndrome. She dreamed of going into early labour, believing a neo-natal intensive care unit was a safer place for her baby than her womb. She was put on a modified work schedule to help her deal with her anxiety. Eventually, she started maternity leave two months early.
Ms Theriault says she tried to explain her symptoms to her obstetrician, who brushed it off as normal pregnancy anxiety. “I became afraid to tell anyone how I felt, because I was sure that as soon as the baby was born, they would lock me up and take him away,” she writes.
She gave birth to a healthy son but the depression continued. She eventually sought help and was treated for post-partum depression – also suffered by about 10 per cent of women. But, she says, while there is general understanding and acknowledgement of postnatal depression, antenatal depression is “totally off the radar”. The exception is online discussion boards, where mums can share stories openly, frankly and sympathetically.
She says doctors can be reluctant to prescribe medication, including anti-depressants, during pregnancy. She cites a New York Times article, which argues pregnant women fear taking the anti-depressants they need, and doctors fear prescribing them. It’s catch-22 – anti-depressants do cross the placental barrier to the fetus, but not treating mental illness can be just as dangerous for both mum and baby. She has also seen many examples of women who have had awful experiences trying to seek treatment for antenatal depression from doctors.
PANDA says identifying antenatal depression can be tricky, and it can be brought on by many factors. After diagnosis, the support of family and friends is vital, as is seeking treatment. It says some anti-depressants can be safely used in pregnancy, and therapy, counselling and rest can also help.
Most importantly, Ms Theriault says, antenatal depression must become less taboo. “So long as antenatal depression remains a secret shame – one often brushed off or downplayed by doctors – things will continue exactly as they are. And the way things are right now is dangerous – not just for unborn babies, but for their mothers too,” she writes.
If you need help, call the National Perinatal Depression Helpline on 1300 726 306 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.