I know from personal experience just how tough depression and anxiety during pregnancy can be. Particularly as it’s a time when everyone expects you to be happy and excited.
But without any shame, I can say that my first pregnancy was awful. Not the actual building the baby bit (that was fine, and my body did what it needed to do) – all my issues were with my mental well-being.
It was the accidental death of my baby’s father when I was four months pregnant that initially plunged me into a state of grief. But somewhere along the line “normal” grief morphed into serious depression and I was the only one who couldn’t see it.
By the time I hit my third trimester I was in a bad way and I needed help.
Luckily for me, my symptoms were noticed by concerned midwives and I was provided with more intense pre-natal care and treatment for depression and anxiety.
I will never forget the kind doctor who saw me and managed to break through the fog of my depression: “Katy, in just 12 weeks you are going to be responsible for another human being. You must be ready to care for your baby – and to do that you must start treatment for your depression”.
This doctor said what many other health professionals had said to me before, but this day, in that consultation room in Canberra Hospital, at last I heard.
I started taking anti-depressant medication immediately and when the big day arrived, I was actually able to take care of my baby daughter. It was something, that just a few weeks earlier, many had doubted I would be capable of.
That was 19 years ago and my baby is now a gorgeous young woman about to embark on her adult life. I have no doubt that her start to life, and my start to parenthood, would have been drastically different had I not been able to access the treatment and support I needed.
Mine is just one story. We know that perinatal depression and anxiety is a quiet, under-reported epidemic in Australia, affecting up to one in ten women during pregnancy and increasing to one in seven women in the post-natal period.
We also know that 74 per cent of mothers with pre and/or postnatal depression or anxiety do not seek help until they reach the point where they simply can’t cope anymore.
In 2008 the previous Labor Government started the National Perinatal Depression Initiative, recognising the importance of good screening and support for families with new babies. In 2015 the program, which had been supported by all States and Territories, was abolished with little notice as part of the federal budget.
If elected, Labor will re-establish a national approach for perinatal depression, allowing health practitioners to identify women and families at risk of anxiety and depression as part of their standard perinatal care.
Under Labor’s plan, every pregnant woman could be screened through a web-based digital screening tool, allowing for real time results. Importantly, it would enable early identification and treatment for women at risk, and enable the collection of nationally consistent data.
As Labor's spokesperson on mental health, I have spoken with experts, academics, health providers and women affected by perinatal depression and anxiety. Again and again, the importance of early screening and support comes up. The evidence for a national approach is clear: reaching every woman, regardless of where she lives and what type of antenatal care she chooses, will save lives.
It’s about giving new parents, and their new babies, the very best chance in life.