From Newport Beach to Harlem and everywhere in between, across all walks of life, postpartum depression steals joy, hope and health from women who usually suffer in secret. And those who need help the most aren’t getting it.
When people are struggling to get by, mental health issues are easy to overlook. Postpartum depression in particular has often been viewed as a problem of the privileged, of the doula-and-birthing-center crowd.
Reinforcing that perception is the litany of actors who have shared their personal struggles with postpartum depression, such as Drew Barrymore, Hayden Panettiere, Brooke Shields and others. While these personal stories do help get the word out, they also create an assumption about who suffers from PPD. When celebrities share these painful stories, it helps educate many people and spread awareness. But the people who most need to hear the message often aren’t hearing it, and those who most need help aren’t getting it.
Those who haven’t been hit by postpartum depression (or PPD) often don’t really understand how devastating it can be.
“I didn’t have postpartum the first time so I didn’t understand it because I was like, ‘I feel great!’ The second time, I was like, ‘Oh, whoa, I see what people talk about now. I understand,’” Drew Barrymore, actress, writer, and mother of two explained recently in a People magazine interview.
Many who haven’t had this first-hand experience wave it off as “just the baby blues” or “just hormones.”
So-called “baby blues” is common in the first two or three weeks after birth. However, if a new mom experiences severe mood swings, depression and anger far beyond the initial adjustment period, it could be a sign of PPD.
Crying often, feeling irritated, angry, helpless or hopeless, and experiencing anxiety about bonding with the baby – when these feelings don’t begin to get better in a few weeks, and especially if they escalate, they are signs of postpartum depression. As an author of several books on postpartum depression put it, if you are experiences these symptoms, “it’s not baby blues, and it’s not OK.”
Postpartum depression can hit any time in the first year after the baby is born, and is marked by the duration and intensity of the symptoms. A history of depression increases the risk.
Some moms think that only thoughts of harming the baby “qualify” as postpartum depression. Frightening but persistent thoughts of self-harm and/or harming the baby are a sign of the much rarer “postpartum psychosis,” and are only a small part of the disorder.
Women are often ashamed to admit they need help. They fear being judged, or “failing” at motherhood. However, many moms who suffer from postpartum depression are setting the bar too high.
There is a special myth about mother and baby that hides the secret truth: bonding and love between mom and infant doesn’t always follow the same path. The rosy image of the blissful new mom and peaceful infant isn’t exactly a lie, but it’s a snapshot of a single moment. A brief, passing moment. And that’s not bliss; it’s exhaustion. Real life is much messier.
Most new moms spend all their energy taking care of their baby, but never stop to refill their own well. But, just as flight attendants instruct us about oxygen masks, we need to take care of ourselves before we can tend to others. And that’s a much harder task if you’re struggling economically.
Getting over the guilt
Postpartum depression, like many other mental health issues, has a stigma in our society. We are slow to recognize and pay attention to any illness that doesn’t immediately show a physical effect.
But there’s another side to postpartum depression. As noted above, throughout the world, motherhood holds an exalted position. With the pressure of those unspoken expectations, who wouldn’t worry about failing to live up to the ideal? If women experience postpartum depression, they fight two demons: the depression itself, and guilt over what they often perceive as a personal failure.
This sense of personal failure can keep women from seeking help, or even admitting that they have a problem. When celebrities like Hayden Panettiere from “Nashville” speak openly about their struggles, it can help. Panettiere recently entered a treatment facility to get help, and told her story.
Still, misunderstanding about postpartum depression abounds. Even among their family members, moms may hear that it’s “just hormones,” or get advice to just “snap out of it.” These dismissive attitudes can keep new moms who are suffering from getting help. Postpartum depression is a serious illness, but one that responds well to treatment.
Postpartum depression hits more than 20% of all women.
Postpartum depression is among the most common medical complication related to childbirth.
While postpartum depression can hit anyone, no matter the life circumstances, women who are economically secure usually have easier access to help and support.
Celebrities, suburban moms, and economically-insecure women all face the same challenges with postpartum depression. However, it’s undeniable that it’s harder to deal with, and harder to get help, if you are poor.
There’s no question that money helps. It’s not that your postpartum depression will be cured because you can hire a doula, a baby nurse, and/or a nanny, but having that support gives you time for self-care, and space to allow you to realize if you need help. You may have better healthcare insurance, and you won’t struggle as much with the logistics of getting help. On the other hand, if you are living in crisis mode, and meeting basic needs takes all your energy, it’s infinitely harder.
Economically-stressed women are at greater risk, but have a harder time getting help.
Women in low-income communities face greater risk for postpartum depression. More than half of low-income mothers living in urban areas were diagnosed with PPD, according to research. And yet, most women are too afraid to tell anyone something is wrong.
For a host of reasons including access, financial barriers, stigma and cultural differences, these mothers are often not getting the treatment they need.
If you are less economically-secure, everything is a challenge.
These women face additional hurdles to getting help. They may not have child care. They may have trouble getting to appointments, whether it’s not having the money for public transportation, or getting time off of work, or making care arrangements for other children, or any number of complications. Maybe it’s just that they don’t have the money for the co-pay.
Women of color may feel that postpartum depression is a “white woman’s disease.” It can be viewed as self-indulgent, or shameful. Added to these attitudes is the very real fear of losing their children if they admit that they need help. If they are afraid that child protective services would become involved, they are likely to keep their feelings hidden.
There have been horrendous stories in the news about new moms who harm their babies and/or themselves. These women were stretched beyond the breaking point. Anyone who has cared for an infant who wouldn’t stop crying can attest that, even in the best circumstances, it’s a stressful job. Add to that the very real illness of postpartum depression or, in these cases, postpartum psychosis, and you have a dangerous situation for both mom and baby.
Women like these suffer in isolation and in secret. They may fear admitting how they feel, and are usually ashamed. But they need to know that treatment will help them.
When they seek help, support groups provide empathy, compassion and encouragement, while medication can ease symptoms. There are anti-depressants that are safe to take while nursing. Many women are reluctant to use medication, but just as you wouldn’t hesitate to take insulin if you are diabetic, you shouldn’t resist using anti-depressants when appropriate. “All the antidepressant did was make me feel like me again, and the side effects were minimal,” reported a relieved mom, who was able to breastfeed while taking Zoloft with no negative effects on her baby.
Providing help where it’s needed
Increasingly, new programs are being initiated to make help easier to get for those who need it most. At Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City, for example, all pregnant patients are visited by a social worker, who screens for risk factors, monitors any issues that arise, and are ready to refer the women to psychiatric care. Having mental health services integrated into the heath care program makes it seamless, and increases the number of women who get the help they need.
At Mary’s Center in Washington, which is a full-service health care facility, ongoing support groups are offered for free in both English and Spanish. Because women go there for regular health care needs, they are more likely to take advantage of these groups.
We at Premier Mind Institute in Newport Beach, CA want all women struggling with these symptoms to know three things:
1. It is not your fault. You are not to blame. This is not a personal failing.
2. You are not alone. Others feel the way you do.
3. You can get better with help. You can get back to your old self.
You can enjoy your baby, and enjoy life, again.
By the way, postpartum depression doesn’t only strike birth moms. Fathers, adoptive parents and nonbiological mothers are also at risk.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Premier Mind Institute Today