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Combating depression in new mums

Cathy Chapple has been named the Northern Territory’s nurse of the year for her commitment to developing perinatal mental health services.

Isolation from family and friends is a common reality for many Territorians, but for pregnant women and new mums it poses a real risk of contributing to depression, said the 2012 Northern Territory Nurse of the Year, Cathy Chapple.

Chapple, who is the NT project leader for the National Perinatal Depression Initiative, said pregnancy and motherhood can be particularly difficult for women in the territory.

“Isolation from close family and friends affects many Territorians and this is especially tough on women when they are expecting a child or have just had their baby,” said the experienced psychiatric nurse who has worked, on and off, in the territory for nearly 20 years.

The diverse population in the territory – comprising many interstate families, migrants, refugees and remote and indigenous communities – contributes to a different social mix than elsewhere in the nation.

The National Perinatal Depression Initiative, which focuses on the period around the birth of a baby, is working to break down the stigma of mental illness and to counter national statistics that show one in 10 women suffers depression during pregnancy and one in six has depression after birth.

Primary health carers, including midwives, GPs and child and family nurses, are being trained to identify depression and provide support and treatment to new mothers. Chapple said about 50 per cent of partners of depressed mums are also affected by depression.

While awareness of emotional and mental health issues after pregnancy was growing, she said there were still barriers to be broken down in the community. “Too often women just suffer and blame themselves.”

Chapple leads a small team of clinicians at the Territory’s Perinatal Mental Health Consultation Service in Darwin and Alice Springs. She became interested in the period around birth when she had children herself and realised the level of expectation on women to just “sail through” what can be a very challenging time.

“It’s such a vulnerable time in a women’s life; they deserve support so they can really enjoy this special time … That’s what really motivates me,” she said.

With the introduction of routine screening, women will be asked to fill out a checklist on emotional health so extra support can be offered if necessary. Women can also download a tool from the beyondblue website at home to raise their awareness of common symptoms of depression.

Chapple is also actively involved in developing an indigenous translation of the screening tool for mothers at risk. She said the goal was to manage the symptoms in new mothers as early as possible. “Chronic stress and depression in pregnancy physically affects the foetus and can affect the baby’s brain development.

“What we are doing is the earliest intervention to guard against issues that may manifest later in life. If we can make a mum well it gives her and the baby the best chance in life,” she said.

The 2012 Northern Territory Nursing and Midwifery Award Winners were announced at Parliament House in Darwin on May 10.

For further information on beyondblue’s depression tool, go to: www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=103.885

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