Uncertainty around COVID-19 is a factor in a 22 per cent rise in new south-west parents seeking emotional and psychological support.
South West Healthcare (SWH) Mental Health Services executive director Richard Campion said its Perinatal Emotional Health Program (PEHP) received 200 referrals for the 2020-21 financial year, up from 164 the previous year.
The program provides family-centred psychological care for south-west women and/or their partners during pregnancy and up to one year post-birth.
Mr Campion said pregnancy and early parenthood were "life changing" and many expectant and new parents were surprised to feel a range of highs and lows.
"Sometimes parents have difficulty adjusting to the many physical, emotional, psychological and social challenges of parenting," Mr Campion said. "Managing the expectations, and the subsequent reality of childbirth and parenting, is a challenge that some women and families experience."
He said uncertainty around COVID-19 and the "overarching stressors the community has faced" was one factor that contributed to the increased demand for services.
He said many women and families had been negatively impacted by lockdowns and reported a reduction in face-to-face ante and postnatal care, including physical health reviews, and relied on telephone support from providers.
Those with older children had also described the negative impact of having to manage the additional responsibilities of home schooling, he said.
Mr Campion said it was important to note that some families reported that the restrictions had been a positive, allowing them to better manage new parenthood by "gaining sufficient sleep and rest without the well-intended but tiring constant arrival of visitors to the home".
He said other reasons for the rise included a new joint initiative with Corangamite Shire, increased awareness about the program and greater access to PEHP following changes to referral options.
He said PEHP encouraged women and families to focus on self-care, self-compassion and to understand that 'parenting is not perfection'. It's also important to take things day by day, and to understand that finding a routine will be difficult, he said.
New mums are also encouraged to recognise and accept that some days will be better than others and to adjust their parental expectations such as prioritising sleep and rest over household chores.
He also recommended anyone feeling overwhelmed to seek help from family, friends, neighbours and professionals.
Gidget Foundation Australia chief executive officer Arabella Gibson said it had delivered 127 per cent more services nationally from March 1 to June 30, compared with the same period last year - when the pandemic began.
"It's really, really significant," Ms Gibson said.
The foundation supports the emotional wellbeing of expectant and new parents to ensure they receive timely, appropriate and specialist care. The foundation provides 20 free clinical psychological support sessions Australia wide, currently delivered via telehealth.
"We know that demand is very much increased at the moment and that mums and dads equally are feeling really heightened anxiety," Ms Gibson said. "Not only is there a stigma attached to mental health but particularly when the whole of community is feeling those (COVID-19) pressures and stresses, people tend to not want to share their own challenges because they feel like someone else might be doing it tougher."
Ms Gibson said there was a 'COVID lag' where parents delayed seeking help due to isolation and lockdowns. This "in turn delayed getting GP diagnosis and the referral process into services such as ours", creating the "sudden demand" it was now seeing.
"We know that one-in-five new mums and one-in-10 new dads are diagnosed with perinatal depression and anxiety but that's just the people that are diagnosed. The numbers that are undiagnosed are far greater."
She said 50 per cent of parents experienced adjustment disorders. "Particularly with the current times we're seeing people who are expecting a baby feeling an incredible amount of fear," Ms Gibson said.
"There are so many rules and regulations around giving birth and going to hospital and what visitation looks like. There's no mother's or father's groups at the moment (due to restrictions) so that that lack of connection is very real."
She said while the current climate had also created a "bubble for new parents to bond and not have pressures of the outside world" they were faced with reintegration and "another whole range of issues" when lockdowns lifted.
She encouraged families to visit their GP for a diagnosis and share with family members how they were feeling.
"It's a recoverable illness so if you act quickly you can recover more quickly," she said. "People don't need to go for months and years feeling rotten and terrible and shocking.
"They can actually seek out the help that they need and get better a lot quicker if they facilitate early detection and early intervention methods.
"I would strongly recommend if people are concerned, to seek out that help because we know that we can really change lives and people can go on to live really happy, fulfilled lives rather than the opposite," Ms Gibson said.
SWH recommends using online supports, resources and webpages such as:
For a PEHP referral visit your GP, maternity provider or self refer during business hours on 5564 6010.
Emergency help is available 24 hours-a-day on the SWH Mental Health Services emergency line on 1800 808 284.
Ms Gibson encouraged parents to visit the Gidget Foundation website for fact sheets, which include a range of pandemic-related advice. She also recommended the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) website and free mental health helpline 1300 726 306. Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 14.
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