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Postpartum Depression and Alcohol Abuse
With the birth of a new baby comes many changes in a mother’s life. Postpartum depression can be one of those changes. In fact, up to 20% of women experience clinical postpartum depression after the birth of a baby. For many mothers, this passes with treatment and time. However, some mothers are prone to developing both postpartum depression and alcohol abuse issues.
Unfortunately, the intensity of postpartum depression can go hand in hand with addiction. Compared to women who don’t experience postpartum depression, women with postpartum depression have higher rates of substance abuse. Over time, substance abuse can lead to addiction that requires treatment to overcome.
What is Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum depression is a condition that causes moderate to severe depression in a woman who has just given birth. Postpartum depression often develops within the first 3 months of a mother giving birth. However, some cases develop a year after the birth of a baby.
Postpartum depression is thought to be caused by hormonal changes that a woman goes through both during and after pregnancy. However, there are also environmental factors that are believed to contribute to the development of postpartum depression in a new mother. These factors can include the following:
- Anxiety about being a mother
- Insomnia or lack of sleep
- Feelings of having little or no time for yourself
- Disruption to work or social life due to pregnancy
- Changes in the body from pregnancy and delivery
Additionally, factors such as age can affect whether or not a new mother develops postpartum depression. It’s believed that mothers under the age of 25 are more likely to develop this condition. Furthermore, mothers who have tension with their partner, lack a support system, or have mixed feelings about their pregnancy are also at an increased risk of developing postpartum depression.
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Many mothers experience something called the “baby blues” after giving birth. The physical strain of birth and demands of a newborn can cause any mother to experience feelings of unhappiness or fatigue. However, postpartum depression goes beyond these feelings. Often, the symptoms can cause a woman to struggle to take care of herself and her new baby.
The symptoms of postpartum depression vary in intensity. Regardless of severity, these symptoms can all cause a new mother to abuse alcohol or other drugs for relief. Common symptoms of postpartum depression include:
- Digestive issues
- Difficulty sleeping
- Memory problems
- Muscle pain or fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Withdrawing from loved ones
- An inability to make decisions
- Hopelessness and helplessness
- Sudden outbursts of anger or rage
- Loss of interest in beloved hobbies
- Difficulty bonding with the new baby
- Constantly feeling negative emotions
- Feeling empty, hopeless, or overwhelmed
- Thoughts about harming the baby or oneself
- Doubting your ability to care for your new baby
- Crying more frequently or for no apparent reason
- Inability to complete daily tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for the baby
Women often experience postpartum depression differently. This is why such a wide range of symptoms occurs. By assessing the occurrence and severity of these symptoms, a healthcare provider can determine whether or not a new mother is suffering from postpartum depression or another condition.
Types of Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression can come in many forms. The differences between the types of postpartum depression generally involve the severity of the emotional, physiological, and behavioral changes a woman experiences. The different types of postpartum depression include the following:
- Postpartum blues: Also known as “baby blues,” this type of postpartum depression comes with bouts of crying, sadness, and anxiety. Without treatment, this condition generally resolves itself after two weeks.
- Postpartum psychosis: This condition comes with extreme mood swings, hallucinations, and other changes in cognitive function. Psychosis is a rare condition that affects less than one percent of women after childbirth.
- Postpartum depression: Postpartum depression is the most common form of postpartum depression. It includes mood swings, sadness, crying spells, anxiety, and changes in sleep. If untreated, women with postpartum depression could have psychological issues that last for months or years after childbirth.
These are not the only type of postpartum conditions that exist. Some women may experience postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can result from trauma during childbirth or stillbirth.
Additionally, a condition called postpartum anxiety can occur. This type of postpartum condition includes feelings of fear or panic. Women who develop postpartum anxiety are often afraid of being away from the baby or having their baby out of their sight. One of the most common symptoms is feeling that you cannot be close enough to your baby or let it out of your sight.
Postpartum Depression and Alcohol Abuse Statistics
- Between 70% and 80% of women report experiencing some kind of “baby blues” after giving birth.
- In the year after giving birth, 1 in 7 mothers is expected to develop postpartum depression.
- For heterosexual parents, half of the fathers go on to experience symptoms of depression if a new mother has postpartum depression.
- Women who have a history of depression or another mental illness are 30-35% more likely to develop postpartum depression than women who did not have a mental health issue.
- Up to 50% of women experience symptoms of postpartum depression while pregnant.
How Postpartum Depression May Lead to Substance Abuse
The link between postpartum depression and alcohol abuse is a significant one. In fact, mothers who abuse alcohol before or during pregnancy are at a much higher risk of developing postpartum depression and subsequent substance abuse problems. Further, many of the contributing factors for developing postpartum depression and substance abuse mirror each other. These can include the following factors:
- Financial problems
- Issues securing housing
- Lack of support from family, friends, or a partner
- Family members who struggle with substance abuse
- Experiencing a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one
- An existing mental health condition such as depression or anxiety
Substance abuse is often used to alleviate negative thoughts and feelings. In postpartum mothers, this substance abuse—including alcohol abuse—can be a continuation of previous drug use. On the other hand, substance abuse can be an entirely new occurrence used to deal with feelings of postpartum depression. Other reasons a new mother may engage in substance abuse may be to:
- Elevate mood
- Increase energy
- Fall asleep at night
- Self-medicate feelings of depression
Risks Associated with Postpartum Depression and Alcohol Abuse
Regardless of mental health, new mothers are usually expected to use alcohol in moderation. Often, breastfeeding is the main reason why drinking is discouraged. This is because alcohol passes through breast milk to the baby when a mother drinks.
Regardless, many new mothers drink anyway—whether they are breastfeeding or not. And while drinking during breastfeeding is discouraged, it isn’t an absolute prohibition. Women who do drink are advised to abstain from breastfeeding for two hours per alcoholic beverage consumed. So, if a woman has three alcoholic drinks, she cannot breastfeed for at least nine hours.
However, abusing alcohol is extremely dangerous for women who are already suffering from postpartum depression or other mental illnesses. Alcohol abuse in these mothers can mix poorly with the other medications used to treat mental health issues, potentially causing significant problems throughout pregnancy and even after giving birth.
Health Risks of Postpartum Depression and Alcohol Abuse
Many women who are struggling with postpartum depression abuse alcohol as a way to self-medicate the symptoms of their disorder. The immediate effects of alcohol intoxication can temporarily dull severe emotional pain, giving the mother an illusionary sense of happiness for a limited period of time.
Unfortunately, the relief that alcohol seems to provide does not last long. Alcohol abuse is linked to worsening mental health. Feelings of depression and anxiety are generally produced if not made worse by abusing alcohol.
Additionally, alcohol abuse is linked to several health effects that can impair a new mother’s ability to care for her baby. These health effects are concerning for anything. With a new mother, the risks become direr as a new baby is likely in her care often. These health risks include the following:
- Risky behavior
- Alcohol poisoning
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk for cancer
- Weakened immune system
- Increased risk of abusing other substances
- Injuries due to accidents such as drunk driving
- Difficulty performing tasks due to being intoxicated
Dealing with Postpartum Depression and Alcohol Abuse
When facing the difficult emotions and symptoms associated with postpartum depression, it’s important to avoid coping with alcohol. To prevent developing an alcohol abuse disorder or physical dependence, there are better ways to stay grounded. Receiving treatment for postpartum depression is the best course of action for a new mother struggling with the condition.
However, there are a few things you can do to help mitigate the negative effects of postpartum depression on your own:
- Exercise: While it may be difficult to find the time, exercising regularly can help fight symptoms of depression. Going for a walk with your new baby in a stroller is one way you can get your body moving.
- Healthy diet: Eating a nutritious diet won’t eliminate your postpartum depression, but it can help you feel better. Getting the vitamins you need will put you in a better place to manage your symptoms.
- Rest: Getting plenty of sleep is another way to help fight the worst symptoms of postpartum depression. New mothers are often unable to get enough sleep due to the demands of a newborn. If you have someone in your life that can help, ask them to take a few of the night shifts.
- Socialize: Isolation is linked with worsened symptoms of postpartum depression. It’s often difficult for new mothers to make time to see friends or family. However, talking about your feelings with friends can relieve some of the stress caused by new motherhood and postpartum depression.
These strategies can help you get through difficult days. On the other hand, it’s important to know that these cannot replace treatment if you’re experiencing severe symptoms and abusing substances at the same time. This is especially true for mothers experiencing postpartum psychosis.
Treatment for Postpartum Depression and Alcohol Abuse
Many women who abuse alcohol or other drugs stop doing so during pregnancy. When it comes to treating an existing alcohol abuse disorder, this window of sobriety offers an excellent opportunity for intervention. On the other hand, women who develop a substance abuse disorder as a result of postpartum depression must also receive addiction treatment.
Treatment for both postpartum depression and alcohol abuse is necessary to avoid potentially severe problems from developing. For example, a woman who is struggling with postpartum depression and alcohol abuse may not recognize the potential danger to her infant if she drinks while breastfeeding. Therefore, she may continue to drink, putting both her and her child at risk.
Treatment for postpartum depression and alcohol abuse disorders generally involves a combination of psychotherapy, support groups, and medication. During treatment, new mothers will have access to family therapy and behavioral therapy. Family therapy can be particularly important as other family members can learn how to better assist a new mother experiencing postpartum depression.
Break Free from Alcohol Addiction with Free by the Sea
If you are a new mother who is experiencing postpartum depression and alcohol abuse, or if you know someone who is in this situation, help is available. Here at Free by the Sea, our dual diagnosis treatment program can help you break free from addiction’s hold on your life. Additionally, we offer specialized care for women. We understand that there are unique factors that affect why women turn to drugs. Here at Free by the Sea, our specialists can provide more information about how we can help you begin your recovery journey. Contact us today to take the first step.
Dr. Richard Crabbe joined our team in 2019 as our psychiatrist and medical director. He attended the University of Ghana Medical School where he became a Medical Doctor in 1977. From 1978 through 1984, he was a medical officer in the Ghana Navy and provided a variety of services from general medicine to surgeries. He received his Certificate in General Psychology from the American Board of Psychology and Neurology in 2002.