Overcoming perinatal anxiety and depression

  • Woman in canola field holding a baby
  • Man in corn field holding a baby
Professor Jeannette Milgrom
Parent–Infant Research Institute
Professor Jeannette Milgrom AM,
Executive Director

Parenthood is a time of transition requiring both mothers and fathers to adapt to new roles, demands and responsibilities. Parents need to continue to make changes to their life to accommodate their own changing needs, as well as those of their baby and partner. This constant demand for adaptation can be draining on energy and resources and leave both mother and father exhausted and, in some cases, anxious or depressed.

For people living in remote and rural Australia, the challenges of parenthood may be compounded by social isolation, extended waitlists, lack of availability of mental health services and professionals, as well as the often vast distances they may need to travel to access mental health services.

Although Australians living in remote and rural areas may be impacted by mental health challenges at the same rate as those living in more urbanised centres, they can experience several unique barriers to receiving care. These include concerns about stigma, a reluctance to seek help, cultural barriers, limited availability of services and high costs associated with accessing services.

Each year, one in five Australian women suffer from perinatal anxiety and depression. Up to 50 per cent of these women are never identified and only 10 per cent of women actively receive treatment. One in 10 new or expectant Aussie fathers also experience depression after the birth of a child. With impacted service access, remote and rural health services are less able to intervene in response to signs of known perinatal risk factors.

Given these very real challenges, it has never been more important for expecting and new parents in remote and rural communities to care for themselves and their families.

The Parent-Infant Research Institute (PIRI) is acutely aware of the many challenges Australians living in remote and rural areas face. In response to the urgent need to better support rural families, and driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, PIRI has expanded the reach of its suite of evaluated perinatal mental health and wellbeing programs by going digital to make them available to all parents and meeting them where they are.

Online mental health support is now readily available for all Aussie women through MumSpace, a suite of free and effective online intervention and treatment programs, designed to rapidly connect rural women with the level of support they need. This ranges from advice and support in the transition to parenthood, to effective online treatment programs for perinatal depression and anxiety.

MumSpace is also a great resource for healthcare professionals, providing an online clinician portal to better support women accessing MumMoodBooster during the perinatal period. Developed with general practitioners, for health professionals, the clinician portal allows direct referral of patients to MumMoodBooster, where progress can be monitored and health professionals can more rapidly intervene in response to signs of escalating risk.

Through ongoing consultation with Australian dads, PIRI has also developed DadSpace, a website dedicated to supporting fathers regardless of where they live. DadSpace provides information, strategies, tips, resources and advice specifically for dads.

PIRI is also developing an online program called DadBooster that might be helpful for men feeling overwhelmed with the arrival of a new baby. This cognitive-behavioural therapy treatment program is similar to the therapy delivered in traditional face-to-face psychology sessions. The advantage of online treatment is that it allows men to work through their own challenges, discretely and in their own time.

Regardless of where people live, timely and accessible mental health care is vital if we are to improve mental health and reduce suicide rates for people in the bush. There is an urgent need for early intervention to reduce the immediate and long-term impact on not only women but on their partners, children and families. Online mental health supports can complement traditional services and help overcome many of the barriers to receiving care.

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