The death of a Winnipeg mother and her two children is sparking discussion here in Nova Scotia about a disorder affecting new mothers.

Symptoms of postpartum depression

  • Changes in sleep patterns, either being unable to sleep or sleeping too much.
  • Fatigue or lack of energy.
  • Changes in appetite, either eating too little or too much.
  • Feeling hopeless, a loss of control or great sadness.
  • Crying for no reason.
  • Having no feelings or too much concern for the baby.
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger.
  • Feeling little interest in daily activities.
  • Feelings of guilt.
  • Anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Scary and repetitive thoughts about the safety of the baby.

The body of Lisa Gibson, 32, was found in Manitoba's Red River on the weekend, just days after her two young children died after being found in critical condition inside the family home.

Police in Manitoba are careful to say postpartum depression is just one of a few scenarios they are investigating into how Gibson and her children died.

Robyn Berman, a doula in Halifax, said postpartum depression is more common than people think.

"Lots of women can put on a brave face, especially if they are out in public for example in a breastfeeding drop-in group or in a community centre kind of setting, but it’s when they come home and they are home alone that these feelings really come to the surface for them," she said.

Between 50 and 80 per cent of new mothers experience the most minor form of postpartum depression also known as the baby blues, according the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Up to 20 per cent suffer more debilitating symptoms including anxiety, hyperventilation and ambivalence toward their child.

Only about one in 1,000 experience psychosis which includes extreme confusion, hallucinations and mania.

The depression can begin at any time between delivery and 6 months post-birth, and may last up to several months or even a year.

The causes of postpartum mental health issues may be related to hormonal changes brought about by childbirth and the changes a new baby brings to families. Women who have a family history of depression, or have themselves suffered from depression, are at greater risk.

Places to go for help

There are many places struggling mothers can get help, starting with their family doctor and various support groups in communities. At the IWK Health Centre’s Reproductive Mental Health Services, there's a team including social workers and psychiatrists.

There's also a lot of literature on the topic — but for some, that doesn’t make the stigma of the disorder any easier.

"Now with the internet, I think it's probably easier than it ever has been but it's still tough and it's still a stigma and so even if somebody self-identifies, what's the chance of them reaching out? I think that's probably the greater issue," said Berman

Having a strong support group, such as having friends and family, on the lookout for signs of depression can make a difference for new mothers who may feel too afraid to come forward and seek help.