Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Doctor urges students to join the battle against Perinatal Anxiety and Depression

Dr Vijay Roach giving his talk after formal dinner


When Dr Vijay Roach spoke at Warrane on Wednesday, 8 May 2013, he urged Warrane residents to do all they could to help to reduce the suffering caused by Perinatal Anxiety and Depression.

Dr Roach is Chairman of the Gidget Foundation, which promotes awareness of the condition and its impact on mothers and their families, motivated by the impact of the disease on his wife, Cathie.

Pointing out that all of those present at his talk had a mother and a father, he said: “Think of those people you love, who love you so desperately and imagine them young again, and maybe unhappy and in pain.

“If you leave here today knowing that there may be a man or a woman with a newborn baby, anxious or depressed that you know, at least say g’day.”

“I feel sick in the stomach imagining another person suffering what we suffered. At least we should make people aware.

“The doctors who looked after us were brilliant. They saved Cathie and they saved our babies. They had amazing surgical and clinical skills. And then they thought that it was over and we suffered terrible morbidity. Medical care is not limited to a mother and a baby just surviving. We must do better than that.”

Dr Roach, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, said the sad part about his wife’s illness was that they thought that it was normal. Finally by chance a friend suggested postnatal depression.

“Cathie was admitted to hospital, medicated and counselled. Eventually we found a marriage counsellor and together we struggled back.”

Dr Roach explained that perinatal anxiety and depression is a complex entity that can manifest itself during or after pregnancy.

“It has biological and psychosocial features. It cuts across all socioeconomic demographics. It is a serious illness, and within one year of pregnancy, suicide (not bleeding or blood clots) is the leading cause of maternal death.”

Dr Roach said the symptoms of perinatal anxiety are much the same as for anxiety disorder in the general population. He said that anxiety probably leads to depression – sadness, crying, loss of appetite, an inability to enjoy the baby – unhappiness and a sense of dread and some women cannot find a way out.

He argued that part of the problem was linked to the fact that in today’s society young women were told how to behave, encouraged to get an education, then encouraged to wed and breed and were in many ways set up for failure. At the same time, men were often perceived as “bad – negative, angry, want sex, violent, emotionally distant, don’t talk, don’t wash”.

Turning his attention to the medical professionals who were present, Dr Roach said: “As health professionals we very rarely use emotive words. We are fearful that this will blunt our professionalism. We should not be afraid. Sometimes our patients need us to reach out and be human.”

He said that part of the challenge with spreading the word about Perinatal Anxiety and Depression was working out how to talk to men about it.

“Well, once a year we hold a function in a pub in Sydney,” he said. “We get 400 unsuspecting men into the pub to talk about Rugby, toss in a couple of Wallabies and then I stand up and say ‘G’day. I’m here to talk about perinatal anxiety and depression.’ There is deadly silence and security has to lock the doors but I talk and men listen and at the end of the function they are still talking, sometimes into the evening.

“There’s an old bloke, a policeman, fag in one hand, beer in the other and he says to me: ‘You know mate, I’m thinking back 40 years ago and I think that I now understand what was happening to the boy’s mother. We’re divorced now, but I think that I’m going to call her tonight.’”

Explaining the background to the Gidget Foundation, Dr Roach said that 12 years ago, a young Sydney mother, suffering from postnatal depression took her own life.

Her family and friends were completely bewildered. They had no awareness of this terrible disease.

“Cathie and I joined with them and formed the Gidget Foundation,” Dr Roach said, “a not for profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness of perinatal anxiety and depression. We give talks, made the DVD, hold functions. Cathie has written Australia’s first definitive resource book on the subject. We are evangelists for the cause because we know first hand what it is to suffer.”

Dr Roach emphasised that men too are casualties of the disease, with both short-term and long-term impacts.

“Our society stifles men and discourages them from expressing their feelings and then criticises them for failing to express their feelings,” he said. “There is minimal acknowledgment in the work force of a man’s role in family life – just deal with it all. Well, this man, successful obstetrician, Chairman of this and leader of that, suffered too and I encourage all of you caring for women with perinatal anxiety and depression to reach out and put your arm around their men too.”

During question time, Dr Roach was asked if depression may be over-diagnosed in Australia today. He said that he understood that and while there may be some over diagnosis of depression, the important thing was to make sure that doctors don’t miss those who do really need help.

“I think that if that is the risk then so be it,” he said, “because if we can save the lives of 100 mothers, let alone the thousands of mothers who suffer what Cathie suffered, then, if it means that we over-diagnose a few people then I can live with that.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]