May 3 is maternal mental health day, a day that raises awareness all of the mental health issues, struggles and changes that women experience during pregnancy and postpartum. It is an opportunity for society to re-examine the ultimate irony: how we fail to support mothers during their postpartum recovery and then shame them for the very mental health issues for which they need the most support. The image of the ideal mom as portrayed through media is thin, social, and attentive to the needs of her partner while being perfectly blissful in the earliest moments of motherhood. This is an unachievable ideal, which invariably sets up most mothers for feelings of failure during a time when they most need validation and support. It’s a societal message that, when internalized by new mothers, indicates that they are somehow lesser than or doing some harm to their children just by nature of having depression.
But our society continues to struggle with how best to support mothers during this important time. We have yet to determine the best universal policies for maternity leave, a time that is important for the physical and mental recoveries of the mother, mother-baby bonding, and setting a routine for feeding and sleeping patterns. We identify the medical benefits of breastfeeding, but then shame mothers who either cannot or opt not to do it. We claim to support women in the workforce but then, when they attempt to balance work and family responsibilities, question their professionalism or capabilities. Our society continues to send mothers mixed messages on body image, day care versus home care, and working mothers versus stay at home mothers.
And yet when these very mothers struggle with postpartum depression, an unfortunate but common complication after delivery that can affect as many as 1 in 5 postpartum mothers, they cannot feel free to talk about it. As a society, speaking about pregnancy-related complications such as prolonged labor, fetal cardiac decelerations and congenital malformations seems to make us less squeamish. If postpartum depression is also such a common occurrence and a public health issue, then why aren’t we comfortable talking about it?
Postpartum depression makes caring for a baby during the very chaotic postpartum period seem almost impossible, with the typical symptoms being a lack of energy, lack of motivation, mood disturbances and difficulty in bonding with baby. Such symptoms are untimely, given that the need for mood stability and sufficient energy to meet the never-ending demands of a newborn are of critical importance in the postpartum timeframe. Those who experience postpartum depression are already likely to be from a more vulnerable population – women who may have less support, strained finances, medical complications and a pre-existing diagnosis of mental illness or substance addictions.
Throughout my career, I have often heard postpartum mothers and their families express that they can “power through” the symptoms of depression, with the hope that the further they distance themselves from delivery, the more likely it is that such symptoms will naturally subside. However, many are surprised to find that the opposite is actually true: the longer they wait for treatment, the more severe the symptoms become. For some women, the first indication that they were ever having a problem is when they suicide.
Treatment of postpartum depression can be rapidly effective and safe. However, in order to start treatment, postpartum mothers must first acknowledge their struggles to their doctors and to themselves. We as a society have a responsibility to normalize the typical struggles that a postpartum mother can have. Public acknowledgement of postpartum depression experiences by celebrities such as Brooke Shields and Chrissy Teigen has made a dent in the silence around postpartum depression. We have a responsibility to continue to share the message that it is okay to experience difficulty with adjustment to motherhood and that seeking support and mental health treatment is not only reasonable but crucial.
Information in this article should not be taken for medical advice. Please consult with your own personal physician.
As part of May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re focusing on treatment and the stigma around getting help. Check out our coverage here and share your story at strongertogether@.