Help new moms

How Can We Support Depressed Moms in Asking for Help?

by Lita Simanis
November 15, 2017
for the PSI Blog

  • “If I tell someone how I feel, they might take my baby away from me.”
  • “I shouldn’t be feeling like this. I’ve always wanted to have a baby.”
  • “My doctor will just give me anti-depressant medication, and I don’t want to take meds.”

beautiful mother and daughter standing near the window

These and many other reasons are why women don’t tell providers how they are really feeling when they are experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. As the August 2017 article in Medical News Today highlighted, the numbers of women not disclosing their symptoms may be more than 20% of those suffering. This statistic comes from a study out of North Carolina State University by Betty-Shannon Prevatt and Sarah L. Desmarais, published in the August 2017 Maternal and Child Health Journal.

I experienced postpartum anxiety 17 years ago after my first son was readmitted to the hospital less than 24 hours after arriving home. The fear and vulnerability I felt when they told me my newborn was going to need a spinal tap is hard to describe, but easy to recall because the memory is so vivid and seared in my brain. He is now a hearty and healthy teenager, but at the time, I felt that anything else I might do would finally break him. I was left with intrusive thoughts of dropping him that would startle me and leave me feeling like a horrible mother.

Although I knew I needed help, and I was blessed to have a helpful and supportive OB/GYN, I did not know about the value of a support network, or how to get one. I reached out to many friends, but no one understood my experience, so I never got to share my struggles until many years after I healed.

Today, I am able to provide the support that so many mothers and fathers need during pregnancy and postpartum. I work at AMITA Health in suburban Illinois, and we started the first and only perinatal intensive outpatient program in the state that has now been open for two years. We also have support groups for moms, for dads, and for Spanish-speaking moms. In addition, I am on the board of Postpartum Support International that provides a warm-line for support and on-line support groups in English and Spanish for people all over the world.

How do we engage moms who won’t admit that they need help even when they are asked? From working with families in the perinatal period for almost 15 years and from my own experience, here are some suggestions:

  • Keep talking about perinatal mood disorders, at home and in the media. Remember when breast cancer was something that was only talked about in whispers? Changing the way people think about a diagnosis helps de-mystify and de-stigmatize the illness, and helps people to understand that research, prevention, and treatment matter.
  • For healthcare providers: get comfortable talking about perinatal mood disorders, and have a conversation with your patients. Don’t just check a box. Don’t just offer an SSRI. Sit down, look at your patient, ask questions and listen for the answers. Just as we are taught the importance of screening for domestic violence, suicidality, and substance use, we also must understand that so many of these high-risk issues are enmeshed with one another, and you may be the only person who knows what’s going on. Remember my OB/GYN? She was the only one who knew how crummy I felt at the time, because she looked at me when she asked me.
  • Support organizations like Postpartum Support International that are working to get front-line clinicians trained in recognizing, screening and treating perinatal mood disorders and mental health clinicians trained in the specialized treatment of perinatal mood disorders. (Healthcare providers: attend one of the trainings from Postpartum Support International and refer to them for information.)
  • Tell your state and federal legislators that we need to improve policies for support for, research into, and prevention of perinatal mood disorders, that include funding the MOTHER’s Act and improving parental leave policies in the United States.
  • Share your own stories. If you have survived a perinatal mood disorder, and are in your own healing journey, let people know. Having public figures like Brooke Shields, Hayden Panettiere, and Drew Barrymore share their experiences is very important. Even more helpful can be a mother telling her daughter that she had postpartum depression, or a neighbor saying “I’ve been where you are, and I can help.”
  • Don’t forget dads. Dads and partners are a too-often overlooked part of the equation. Whether the focus is on how dads can help moms, or on making sure that dads get treatment for their own perinatal mood disorders, we must include partners in the discussions and in the solutions whenever and however possible. When I speak with both a mother and her partner in the hospital as they are leaving for home I will let them know that anyone is welcome to call our program, and as a result, sometimes the dad is the one calling and saying that there is a concern.
  • Let moms know that they deserve to feel good. When they are preparing for or have a new baby, it’s actually really important for the wellness of the baby and family that parents are emotionally and mentally healthy. Moms, don’t let guilt and fear stand in the way of getting treatment you deserve. If you are not getting the understanding you need, call 1-800-944-4773.

Lita Simanis cropLita Simanis, LCSW, is Coordinator of the Pregnancy and Postpartum Mood & Anxiety Disorder Program at Alexian Brothers Health System. She also works as a Perinatal Mental Health Clinician on the North Shore Mom’s Line. Since 2008, Lita has been the co-coordinator of the Postpartum Depression Illinois Alliance. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers, the National Association of Perinatal Social Workers and Postpartum Support International. Lita serves on the board of Postpartum Support International and also on the board of the Latvian School of Chicago.