Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Breaking out of maternal depression

The report in The Age today that maternal depression is significantly greater four years after birth than during the first year has some alarming implications for parents; depressive symptoms in mothers are linked with worse developmental outcomes for children and higher risk of accidental injuries.

A study of 1500 mothers by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute found that while 10 per cent of women reported symptoms of depression a year after the birth of their first child. this increased to 15 per cent four years after the birth.

Researchers found that women who had experienced depression in the first year were more likely to re-experience it in the fourth year, but 40 per cent of those who were depressed when their child was four had not previously reported symptoms, suggesting their mental health worsened as their children grew older.

As lead author Dr Hannah Woolhouse points out, the findings contradict the prevailing view that mothers were most vulnerable to depression in the first couple of months after giving birth.

What troubles me is that this isn't exactly news. Way back in 1994, a study published in the journal Paediatrics of 233 mothers found 42 per cent exhibited depressive symptoms.

Significantly, in that study, mothers who expressed dissatisfaction with their employment status were almost four times more likely to be depressed as those who didn’t. Even more to the point, mothers working part-time were only half as likely as those employed full-time or not at all to suffer from depressive symptoms.

It therefore should not be at all surprising that mothers of toddlers are in desperate need of initiatives such as the Jigsaw Play and Learn preschool activity group in North Caulfield mentioned in The Age, to say nothing of a concerted effort to provide mothers of young children with more flexible work opportunities.

A recent study at the University of Texas indicates what happens when mothers of young children suffer from depression. If you are constantly trying to regulate your distress or discomfort, you are not in the best condition to cope with little people who are often, as the researchers note, "demanding, needy, unpredictable, uncooperative, and highly active.”

Psychologists at our Centre for Child and Family Care in Albert Park frequently work with mothers experiencing depression.

They find that it is often helpful for young mothers to have a regular opportunity to escape from the sense of isolation experienced by many stay-at-home mothers and to engage in regular exercise and other activities.

If you are a young mother under stress, or you know someone who is struggling to cope, it might be time to seek expert help.