What causes mental health conditions?

Mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood can affect anyone, regardless of your background. Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions usually don’t have one definite cause – something we can point to and say ‘that’s the issue'.

Instead, they’re likely to develop as a result of a combination of challenges or ‘risk factors’ and a lack of support or ‘protective factors’. Risk factors often include longer-term issues you might have been dealing with for a while, as well as more immediate ones related to giving birth and becoming a parent.

As part of your pregnancy and postnatal care, health professionals may ask you questions about the following issues so they can provide support if you need it:

  • personal or family history of mental health conditions or current mental health conditions
  • current alcohol and/or drug use
  • how much practical and emotional support you have available
  • current or past history of abuse (e.g. physical, psychological, sexual)
  • difficult or stressful life events (e.g. previous miscarriage or stillbirth, loss of job, moving house, homelessness).

Stresses during pregnancy and early parenthood

Getting used to being a parent can be hard work – and that’s if everything goes smoothly. Throw in a colicky baby, difficulty sleeping or recovering from a complicated birth and you could find yourself feeling pretty stressed out. If you’re dealing with a number issues over a period of time, keep an eye on your moods and seek support if you need it. 

Factors that can increase stress

  • a stressful or unplanned pregnancy
  • obstetric complications in the past, including fertility problems
  • a very long labour and/or complicated birth
  • severe baby blues after the birth
  • an anxious, perfectionist personality or being a 'worrier'
  • low self-esteem and being self-critical
  • difficulty with breastfeeding
  • a premature baby or problems with your or your baby's health, including separation issues
  • continuing lack of sleep or rest
  • an unsettled baby (e.g. problems with feeding and sleeping)
  • being a single parent
  • being a teenage parent
  • being the parent of more than one baby (e.g. twins or triplets).

This doesn’t mean that every new parent who faces challenges will develop a mental health condition – different combinations of risk factors affect us in different ways, and protective factors can strengthen our mental health and improve our resilience.

Protective factors

If we think about risk factors as the negative things that can chip away at our mental health, protective factors are the positive things that build us up and give us the skills and support to deal with challenges.

These include:

  • Strong support networks – family, friends, community, other new parents
  • Positive sense of identity and cultural heritage
  • Being physically healthy and taking care of yourself – exercising, eating well, reducing stress where you can
  • Good coping and problem-solving skills
  • Optimism – a belief that life has meaning and hope
  • A positive attitude to support seeking
  • Access to support services

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