I often hear from women who choose not to reach out for help even though they have serious concerns they are suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety. There is a tendency to hope that the symptoms will eventually wear off, or that if they can just yank up those bootstraps some more they’ll be alright.
John McManamy, author and blogger at McMan’s Depression & Bipolar Web, wrote a great piece entitled “Mental Water Torture” about why it’s important not to ignore depression. His words apply to women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders as well. If we ignore what we’re going through, just hoping it will fade away, we may be sentencing ourselves to something much worse. I love how he puts it:
As I sit here writing this, the term mild to moderate depression mocks me. I won’t even begin to estimate how many years I’ve lost to a disorder predicated by the modifiers mild to moderate. The least they could have done was assign the name of a Shakespeare character – Hamlet’s disease, Lear’s disease, anything, really. Just so long as it doesn’t imply I was cut down in the prime of my youth by some invisible stupid Nerf bat pounding against the inside of my brain.
For the rest of you: You can end it right now. You don’t have to endure the mental water torture any longer.
He’s right. As you already know, there are no awards handed out for those who elect to continue to suffer. In fact, untreated depression can be damaging to your health, including putting you at a higher risk for substance abuse, stroke and sleep problems, among other things. Research shows that ignoring the postpartum depression you have now could lead to chronic major depression in the future, and it can also negatively impact your child’s development, as explained by Harvard’s Dr. Ruta Nonacs:
Untreated mood disorders place the mother at risk for recurrent disease. Furthermore, maternal depression is associated with long-term cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems in the child.
So why do we wait to reach out for treatment when we know something is wrong?
Many reasons. There’s the fear of facing the unknown, including the potential of having to try medication or therapy. There are those of us who just don’t pay attention to how we’re feeling, those of us who always put others ahead of ourselves, and those of us who are afraid of what others will think. Some would rather believe this is the “baby blues,” even though the baby blues would have resolved itself about two weeks after delivery and we are still feeling miserable and perhaps getting worse.
Susan Stone, LCSW and blogger at Perinatal Pro, adds to this list the misrepresentation in the media of postpartum mental illness. Compared to the consistently bedraggled, crazy-looking, blank-eyed moms portrayed on TV, many of us can function and present ourselves in a way that hides our underlying misery. Because of this, we think we don’t have an illness requiring support from others or professional help.
There are mothers who may have a pregnancy-related mood disorder but think that because their symptoms do not equal the extreme drama portrayed in such [entertainment] stories, they do not have postpartum depression or another affective pregnancy-related disorder. They may conclude that their suffering is insufficient to warrant intervention and compassion. These are the mothers who know that something is wrong, but compare themselves to these extremely rare depictions and think they are just “blue” and attempt to tough it out — week after hellish week. So months of silent anguish continue and the potential joy of motherhood is lost to the woman, her infant and her family.
None of these reasons for waiting to reach out for help is acceptable. It’s not worth the future pain we may cause ourselves.
Karen Kleiman, author of “This Isn’t What I Expected” and many other great books about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, wrote about this issue in her comment on an article I wrote about deciding whether to take meds during pregnancy:
Sometimes people feel that a risk is greater if they ‘do’ something or take action, as opposed to just letting things be. Like, ‘If I get on that airplane during the storm, the risk will be greater than if I don’t go.’ That seems pretty clear.
Conversely, there are times when the risk is in fact higher when no action is taken, such as the decision not to do anything in response to having chest pains.
This is the case with women who are pregnant or postpartum. Women who are deciding whether or not to take medication are understandably unsettled by having to make this decision. Often they feel if they ‘take’ the medication, they are taking an action, or engaging in behavior, or making a choice that increases the risk, or so they believe. Thus, they feel it would be better to do nothing.
But we know that in many of these cases, it is NOT better to do nothing and NOT TAKING ACTION can be detrimental; it can significantly increase the risk potential, particularly for women who are severely ill.
So it’s a perception thing. We perceive the risk to be greater if we take action. ‘If I put this pill in my mouth I will be hurting myself or my baby.’ But it’s a faulty perception. Sometimes, the risk is much greater when we do not act.
If you have the symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, psychosis or any of the other mental illnesses related to childbirth, reach out for help. There are people who want to help you, like the volunteers and experts at Postpartum Support International. There are things you can do to help yourself. There are a variety of effective treatments. Go talk to a professional to see if you need one. Take action. You, and your family, are worth it.