A few years ago, I entered a new season of life. My friends and I left our college years behind us and established ourselves in our respective fields. Many moved in with a partner or got married. It wasn’t long after this that a few began to start their families as well. As some of the people closest to me became parents for the first time, I caught my first glimpses of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) and was exposed to a lexicon that had previously been unfamiliar to me.
I became intimately acquainted with terminology like “postpartum depression” and “prenatal anxiety.” A couple of friends experienced labors so harrowing that they were later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was during this season, a time simultaneously rewarding and bleak, that I began to understand what it meant to love and support a friend who was struggling with her mental health following the birth of her child.
Here are some things I learned:
1️⃣ I have found that one practical way of helping a friend who is wrestling due to one or more PMADs is to check in with her on a consistent basis. Ask how she is, share something small about your own life, and remind her that you are there for her. A short note in the mail or even just a quick text is a way to communicate that you remember her and care for her well-being.
2️⃣ In addition to checking in, look for tangible ways to lighten your friend’s mental load and provide physical relief. Offer to watch her infant while she naps, showers, or goes to an appointment. Cook a meal for her and her family. If suggestions such as these would be unsafe in your area due to the spread of COVID-19 (or if your friend lives too far from you for it to be feasible), consider arranging for groceries to be delivered to her or send a gift card to her favorite restaurant so she can get takeout.
3️⃣ Conversations can be powerful. The discussions you have with your friend can be an incredible source of relief to her. When she confides in you, listen with compassion and empathy. This may seem obvious, but it is easier said than done. She may confess that she feels like a failure because she has had difficulty breastfeeding while you may have elected to use formula for your own child. She may admit that she resents that her birth plan didn’t go as expected while you may have had an unplanned or emergency C-section. These admissions are not necessarily a reflection of her opinion of you or an indictment of your own decisions, but are more likely a representation of her own private grief and disappointment regarding her personal circumstances. They may spring from moments of deep vulnerability mingled with exhaustion, so be patient and attentive.
4️⃣ Help her to see her successes. Find opportunities to highlight ways you have seen your friend care for her family. If you notice her tenderly soothing her crying infant while also attending to her frustrated toddler, encourage her with that observation later in conversation. Even a healthy, well-rested mom can have a warped perception of herself as a parental figure or partner, so pointing out specific things she has done well can be huge.
5️⃣ Do not forget about the dads. While the emphasis of this article has been largely focused on moms and their needs, I would be remiss if I neglected to remind anyone reading this of how significant men’s mental health issues are as well. When your friend’s partner or husband is present, be sure to inquire after them as well.
6️⃣ Help her find professional help. Find out about mental health professionals in your area who are experienced in perinatal mental health and compile a list for her. Use PSI’s directory of trained PMAD professionals: https://psidirectory.com/ This step can be so overwhelming for many new moms and one that can take a huge burden off her shoulders. Offer to drive her to her appointments or (especially with COVID-19) schedule telehealth appointments for her. Offer to babysit for her while she gets help.
7️⃣ Finally, regardless of whether you are interacting with your friend or her spouse, be cognizant of your own limitations. You cannot exhaust yourself caring for others and even if you had an infinite amount of time and energy, there is wisdom in knowing when to point your friend to reputable mental health resources (Postpartum Support International’s website is a great starting point).
So long as you have friends who are of childbearing age, you are also likely to have friends who have a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, but these suggestions are a starting point in caring for and supporting them well.
Amy Stuart describes herself as both an avid writer and as someone with a desire to be a passionate advocate for those in need, particularly for those impacted by mental illness. She completed her B.S. in Justice Studies at Arizona State University, where she also studied English and history, tutored writing, and was a columnist with The State Press. She later worked with at-risk students and young adults. Currently, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, writing, working out, baking, and volunteering in her community.