A Perth psychiatrist warns that a growing number of new mothers struggle with serious mental health problems after a survey showed more than a quarter seeking support services considered self-harm.
Associate Professor Caroline Zanetti, director of psychiatry at the Raphael Centre at St John of God Subiaco Hospital, said an alarming proportion of new mothers who visited the service had thoughts of self-harm.
Staff surveyed 146 mothers over three months this year after noticing more women with severe problems. They found 27 per cent of new patients thought about self-harm.
"I was gobsmacked," Professor Zanetti said. "If it had been 10 per cent that would be high, but we might have expected that.
"But to see such high levels of distress was really startling.
"It was across all demographics, from teens to women having their first baby at 45, and many were middle-class, well-educated and in stable relationships." Professor Zanetti said the mental health problems were also increasingly severe.
"We have no explanation for this, other than that when we started in 2003, we received referrals mostly from obstetricians and from women themselves, often at the suggestion of their child health nurse," she said.
"We now get many more referrals from GPs and those prompted by child health nurses seem to have more severe problems."
The findings were significant because other research found suicide was the leading cause of death in new mothers.
With SJOG Subiaco's director of obstetrics and gynaecology Michael Gannon, Professor Zanetti is starting a world-first study known as Take Up of Postnatal Services or TUPS to track thousands of new mothers.
They want to interview mothers with babies aged 6-15 months for an anonymous survey about how they have coped in the first six months after the birth.
Details at surveymonkey.com/s/TUPS or phone 9382 6828