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Having a kid does some weird things to the brain, and that can lead to or aggravate all kinds of psychiatric conditions.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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{♫Intro♫}.

Having a newborn can be a joyous experience but it can also be overwhelming. After all, you’re suddenly responsible for this helpless, needy human being.

And while they might be super adorable, they’re also not that interesting for a while. On top of that, there are all kinds of hormone fluctuations, sleep disruptions, and potential complications from labor and delivery. So even if you’re not the one who gave birth, there’s a lot to deal with.

These days, it’s becoming more well-known that things like postpartum depression exist, but the reality is, depression isn’t the only postpartum disorder out there. Having a kid does some weird things to the brain, and that can lead to or aggravate all kinds of psychiatric conditions. According to the World Health Organization, up to 20% of people who give birth develop postpartum psychiatric disorders.

These include depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and psychosis. And without screening and treatment, they can take a serious toll on someone and their child. They can also happen to a parent who doesn’t give birth.

The research is more limited there — especially when it comes to groups like adoptive parents — but data suggest that at least 5% to 10% of new dads develop postpartum depression. And up to 18% develop postpartum anxiety disorders. No matter whom you’re studying, though, figuring out what causes these conditions is extremely tricky, because there are so many variables involved.

Anything from genetics to finances could play a role, and in general, postpartum conditions are still underdiagnosed and understudied. But even though the science isn’t crystal clear, that doesn’t mean researchers have no idea what’s happening. Take one study of more than 8000 women in England.

It identified that two of the greatest risk factors for developing any postpartum psychiatric disorder were anxiety and depression during pregnancy. Other studies have found that having a history of any mental illness before having kids seems to increase the overall risk, too. But that isn’t where their research has stopped.

For each of the major conditions, scientists have also managed to identify factors that might play a large role. For one, they think social and environmental factors play a huge part in postpartum depression and anxiety disorders. These factors include marital status, finances, family support, food security, and more.

And while research is ongoing, the general idea is that these things may cause symptoms by influencing someone’s hormone levels or gene expression. A good example of when this happens is with postpartum depression. Its symptoms include overwhelming feelings of sadness, severe fatigue, and loss of interest in daily activities.

And in the U. S., it’s thought to affect up to 1 in 5 parents who give birth. But the data also suggest that those numbers can go up when people experience things like food insecurity or a lack of access to healthcare.

Factors like this can also impact whether someone develops postpartum generalized anxiety disorder, which involves chronic worry. And they can influence postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, which involves unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Some conditions even have more specific environmental causes, like postpartum PTSD — or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Someone with this condition will feel severe distress when they think about a certain trauma, and they will avoid things that remind them of it. And in this case, the cause can actually be pretty straightforward. It’s not true for all people, but postpartum PTSD can happen when birth felt traumatic.

Of course, just because scientists think these factors play a big role doesn’t mean they’re the only culprits. Someone’s genetic background will also contribute to their mental health. For some disorders, though, researchers believe that things like genetics and hormones play an even bigger part.

A good example is with postpartum psychosis. This is among the rarest and most severe postpartum psychiatric illnesses, and it typically requires immediate intervention. Although it’s hard to get a clear estimate, it seems to occur in roughly 1 or 2 people out of every thousand who give birth.

And the symptoms appear within a few days or weeks following delivery. Those symptoms start suddenly, too, and they include paranoia; grandiose, bizarre delusions; and extreme mood swings. And unlike conditions like OCD or anxiety, these impairments can be so severe that someone becomes in danger of harming their child.

Thankfully, there are treatments for this disorder, but because it can appear so fast and is so extreme, scientists have spent time looking at the risk factors. So far, the biggest one seems to be bipolar disorders. In fact, evidence suggests that postpartum psychosis is actually just an extreme version of these conditions, and that it happens when hormone changes after birth crank existing symptoms way up.

The case isn’t totally closed on this, though, since some research has found that at least half of those who ended up with postpartum psychosis hadn’t been diagnosed with bipolar disorders. And there are also some data that suggest that some cases of postpartum psychosis could be an extreme form of postpartum depression, or the onset or recurrence of disorders like schizophrenia. Regardless, it’s not a bad idea for those with a history of these conditions to talk with their doctor before giving birth.

Ultimately, though, understanding the risk factors for all of these conditions is important, because they allow patients to make informed decisions during or after having a child. Even just acknowledging them is great, because lack of awareness, stigmas, or the belief that having a baby is supposed to be super amazing can all leave parents suffering. But, hey.

Having a new kid is a whirlwind, and there’s no shame if that takes a toll on your mental health. Just learning that these disorders can happen is a good place to start, and the nice thing is, there are plenty of screening methods and treatments available for them. So even if scientists are still trying to pin down exactly why they happen, they’ve at least found ways to help.

Earlier, I mentioned that postpartum depression can present in both parents, not just the one who gave birth. If you want to learn more about that, you can check out our episode about it. And as always, thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. {♫Outro♫}.