The words “depression” and “mental illness” have too long been linked to a certain stigma or shame. Although in recent years there has been a push to bring awareness to the complexities of mental health (with many celebrities and writers sharing their own personal battles), it is still widely misunderstood by society. These misinterpretations can negatively affect the people who suffer from mental illnesses by causing feelings of shame and guilt.
Instead of seeking professional help, someone who suffers from depression or anxiety may incorrectly assume they can “beat it” if they just try hard enough. Just as sheer determination alone cannot heal someone suffering from a physical illness like cancer or heart disease, mental illnesses cannot be overcome without seeking professional help whether it is medication or therapy or a combination of the two.
As a survivor of postpartum depression and anxiety, there are a few things I learned through my journey that may be helpful to others so they can, in turn, be more supportive and encouraging to someone they know who may be suffering from something similar.
1. Postpartum Depression Extends Much Longer than the “Baby Blues”
According to Postpartum Support International, approximately 80% of new mothers experience some form of the baby blues after giving birth to their child, but only about 20% of new moms will experience the total darkness and hopelessness of postpartum depression (PPD). Out of that percentage, it is averaged that about 1 in 7 (approx. 14%) actually seek medical help.
In other words, the baby blues (which is very challenging on its own) is considered very common amongst new moms as they adjust to their roles as parents. The baby blues usually last no longer than a few weeks postpartum and resolve without medical assistance. Conversely, PPD lingers for much longer, sometimes as long as 1-2 years depending on if/when the mother seeks medical support.
2. PPD and Anxiety Symptoms affect the Whole Body
Postpartum depression is more than just feeling sad and crying all the time. Besides the fluctuations emotionally, it often causes physical pain similar to symptoms of the flu. Personally, I experienced reoccurring headaches, achy muscles, fevers, and severely low energy throughout my battle with PPD. These physical symptoms paired with the emotional darkness of depression, were paralyzing to me and often caused even the smallest of tasks to overwhelm me to the point of exhaustion. For those who also struggle with anxiety like myself, the constant worrying and racing thoughts frequently cause insomnia and restlessness. This combination of physical exhaustion and mental insomnia are immobilizing for the sufferer.
In addition, the feelings of guilt, shame, and overall hopelessness can feel overwhelming to the point of suicidal thoughts or fears of harming the baby. For myself, it triggered an inability to bond with my infant and confusion as to why I didn’t feel love for my own child. PPD and anxiety symptoms are different for everyone, but a couple things are certain: it extends much longer than the first few weeks postpartum and typically will not go away without medical support.
3. The Best Gift to give is Time Away from the Baby
Although it is nice to be showered with cute little newborn outfits, girly hair bows, and fancy bow ties, what every mom suffering from depression and anxiety really wants is time away from the baby. She needs sleep more than anything. A shower would be nice too. And maybe her favorite take-out food. After a nap, shower, and a good meal, she will feel more like herself again!
She will most likely feel enormous guilt for wanting a break away from her baby. She may feel like a terrible mom if she actually voices that she needs “me-time”. Understand that she probably won’t feel comfortable asking for help. So try offering your services instead. Tell her a day and time that you can come over to take baby-duty so she can nap, shower, or maybe even get out of the house to enjoy a baby-free afternoon. Take it from someone who has experienced PPD firsthand, multiple gifts of this nature spread out over a certain amount of time would be a huge blessing!
4. Listen with Your Heart, without Judgment or Correction
Being a mother of a newborn is hard by itself, but adding the extra struggle of PPD and anxiety, it is much more difficult. Every woman who battles with mental illness needs a friend who will listen empathetically and not interject with advice or correction. She needs to know someone truly cares for her well-being and won’t pass judgment on her. Even the most caring people can unintentionally say or do something that is insensitive or hurtful so it is important to remember that just listening with empathy goes a long way!
Personally, I am fortunate enough to have supportive family members and friends who I felt I could confide in, but talking with them about my battle with depression and anxiety didn’t happen right away. Once I sought professional help with medication and therapy, I slowly gained a deeper understanding of PPD and how it was affecting my mind and body. As I learned more and became more self-aware, I gradually started opening up to loved ones so they could share the burden with me. Their listening ears and encouraging words were just what I needed during one of the lowest points in my life. And let’s be honest, every single one of us needs that same support, whether we’re doing well or not.
5. Encourage Her in Every Area of Life, Especially Her Role as a Mom
Every new mother needs to be affirmed in her role as a mom so don’t forget to praise her for all she is doing to take care of her little one. Be specific with your praise and encouragement. If you’re impressed by her diaper-changing skills or the way she swaddles her baby, tell her out loud. If you catch a sweet moment of mama and baby bonding, make sure to tell her how adorable they are together. Great or small, she needs to hear words of praise spoken about her, especially her new role as a mom.
One of the most encouraging moments during my battle with PPD came as a result of a task my therapist assigned to me. I had to make a list of ten things I love about myself and then ask each of my family members and close friends to make a list as well. The lists I received brought me so much encouragement during a time when I felt very hopeless and unworthy. Some of my favorite comments were the praises I received about my new role as a mom. It was so uplifting to hear from my family and friends that they see me as an “intentional, caring, and affectionate” mom to my baby boy. I will cherish their words for a lifetime!
As a survivor of PPD and anxiety, my prayer is my personal experience may bring encouragement to those who are currently hurting and feeling alone. I pray this list helps break the stigma of depression and mental illness. Lastly, I hope it will help others be more empathetic and supportive to those who are fighting their own battle. Just one friend who truly cares and listens with their heart can make all the difference in the world!