Having a baby is extraordinary, exhilarating, and exhausting.
As new mothers are adjusting to a life of 4:00 am feedings and emergency diaper changes, their brains and bodies are also getting re-acclimated. According to Postpartum Progress, an organization that aims to raise awareness surrounding maternal mental health, most women face stress, sadness, and anxiety in the first few months of parenthood. Those feelings — what the Mayo Clinic refers to as “postpartum baby blues” — aren’t long-lasting, and are a standard response to the fluctuating hormones, physical changes, and new emotional strain that accompany caring for a newborn. It’s estimated, though, that roughly 1 in 7 new mothers will be diagnosed with a mood disorder during or following their pregnancy. As Postpartum Progress explains, the statistics are probably actually even higher (closer, they think, to 20%) since data relies on diagnoses and self-reporting, and many women who struggle with postpartum mood disorders feel ashamed or don’t seek medical care.
Postpartum depression (or PPD) is one of the most common postpartum mood disorders. Like many mental health conditions, it has a long history of being shrouded in shame and isn’t talked about as widely as it needs to be, especially given how many women it affects.
Hannah Garison, writer and founder of Calm-A-Mama, a plant-based line of therapies to ease stress and provide relaxation to new mothers, writes bravely of her own PPD on the blog Motherly. “It is hormonal, it is chemical, it is transitional, it is real, it is happening and it is not your fault,” she writes, speaking to the guilt, shame, and self-doubt that women with PPD often feel contributes to the “spinning overwhelm” and loneliness they face.
Dr. Elizabeth Hatchuel, a counselor at Evolve Clinical Services, in an article published by the blog End the Stigma, explains that PPD, which she defines as an “extremely agitated depressive episode,” can severely “interfere with a mother’s ability to care for herself and/or her baby,” and that the stigma surrounding the disease affects not only a woman’s likelihood to seek help, but also a physician’s likelihood to adequately screen for, diagnose, and treat PPD appropriately. Women struggling with PPD often feel out of control of their own thoughts, emotions, and actions — “with such high stakes,” Dr. Hatchuel argues, we can’t afford for stigma to get in the way of our ability to help new mothers through this difficult illness.
The first step in eliminating stigma is understanding the illness itself and moving beyond the myths surrounding PPD. The Postpartum Stress Center explains that PPD contains both anxious and depressive episodes, and that, depending on which set of symptoms a woman faces the most, she’s either diagnosed with “postpartum depression” or “postpartum anxiety.” The entire phenomenon is sometimes known as “postpartum distress.” In a flyer meant for patients, the Stress Center lays out some of the most helpful reminders for women who are struggling with feelings of distress after childbirth. “It did not happen becuase you are weak, or [are] thinking the wrong things, or because you are not a good mother,” they write, “you can take it one day at a time…you will feel better again.”
Post delivery stress and anxiety should lessen with time, and when it worsens or doesn’t go away, women should seek help from a medical care provider. A doctor will assess their symptoms through a set of diagnostic questions, and will help them understand if they’re feeling something temporary or longer-lasting. Doctors often determine that medical intervention is the best way to help a mom with PPD feel more like herself again; according to the MayoClinic, a combination of therapy, support from friends and family, and medication (usually antidepressants) will help clear up PPD in several months.
Postpartum depression is scary, but it’s also common and treatable. It’s not a reflection of a woman’s suitability for motherhood, of the quality of her relationship to her baby or to her partner, or of the effort she’s putting forth as a new parent. Thankfully, good work is being done to start to chip away at the stigma surrounding PPD and to remind women that they aren’t alone. Celebrities like Brooke Shields and Hayden Panettiere have been courageously vocal about their own struggles with PPD. Shields wrote of her experience in her memoir Down Came The Rain, and Panettiere made public her decision to stop filming “Nashville” and begin treatment. The National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health has created advocacy kits and works to tackle “the systemic inefficiencies and barriers” that often stand between mothers and the healthcare they deserve by arming mothers with information and working to pass maternal healthcare acts. Step by step, PPD is being brought out of the darkness so that mothers can access the care and life-saving treatment they need and deserve.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.