By Shannon Wiseley
Becoming a mother is one of the biggest life-changing events that a woman can experience. Sometimes, these changes are filled with joy and happiness. Other times, the changes can be scary and overwhelming. For many mothers, having a baby triggers an onslaught of unbearable thoughts and emotions that can leave a woman feeling broken and hopeless. Recently, postpartum depression has received media coverage thanks to celebrities like Hayden Panettiere, who has come forward to publicly describe her struggles with the disorder. Although the issue of maternal mental health has become more talked about in recent times, there are still many misconceptions about the disorder and the women who suffer from it. It is the intent of this article to address some of those misconceptions and provide clarity on the often misunderstood and overlooked problem that affects at least 1 in 7 mothers and their families.
One of the most startling misconceptions is the widespread belief that postpartum depression makes a mother want to hurt her child. While it is true that some mothers struggle with frightening thoughts of harming their children, these are called intrusive thoughts and they are rarely acted upon. In fact, most mothers who experience intrusive thoughts are often times extremely protective and hypervigilant in their efforts to ensure baby’s safety. On the rare occasion when we do hear of a mother who has harmed her baby this is often the result of a rare and serious condition called postpartum psychosis. This is when the mother becomes out of touch with reality and enters a psychotic state. This is a completely distinct disorder and not to be confused with “severe” postpartum depression. It is also important to note that not all mothers who become psychotic actually do harm their children and with swift emergency psychiatric treatment, mothers often recover quickly. What is most unfortunate is that this societal belief and associated stigma is often the very thing that prevents mothers from seeking help. Women are afraid that they will be judged as a bad mother, or worse, have their children taken away from them. Having postpartum depression does not make someone a bad mother.
Telling someone about symptoms including intrusive thoughts can be scary, but asking for help is the first step to recovery and the greatest thing a mother can do for herself and her family. Another misconception is that problems can begin only after the baby is born. This is not true. In fact, for some women symptoms of maternal mental illness can begin at any time during her pregnancy. Another false belief is that all symptoms are depressive in nature. However, depression is just one of several mental health problems that can occur during the perinatal period. The term “perinatal mood and anxiety disorders” was recently coined as the umbrella term that better represents the cluster of mental health issues that a mother can experience during and/or after her pregnancy. Perinatal mood disorders may present themselves in a number of ways. For example, postpartum anxiety is marked by constant worry and overwhelming fear. At times, these worries might be specifically about the baby. Other times, the anxiety will seemingly strike “out of the blue”. Perinatal anxiety can coincide with depression symptoms or exist on its own. Due to this misconception, a mother who has primarily anxious symptoms might not even recognize that she is suffering from a perinatal mood disorder because she’s not depressed. It is important to remember that the symptoms of these various disorders do not always fit into a neat little box. What matters is that a woman who is struggling with any of these issues reach out and seek help.
Treatment for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders often involves therapy and sometimes medication. Another important treatment variable is building the mothers support system. A therapist can help enlist and educate the mother’s partner, family and close friends to become a strong support system. In addition to the above, another great resource is joining a perinatal support group. Postpartum Support International is an organization created to help educate and provide resources regarding maternal mental health. PSI oversees peer support groups all over the country and sponsors a group here in Lee County.
If you or someone you love is suffering from a maternal mental illness, please seek help. Postpartum Support International offers a toll free “warmline” where callers can receive information, support and resources at (800) 944-4773. Or contact the regional PSI Coordinator Cynthia Butler at (239) 848-5904 for information about the local support group and contact me, Shannon Wiseley at (517) 398-3230 for a phone consultation at no charge. Remember, reaching out for help is the first step to recovery. The sooner you ask for help, the sooner you can feel better. To quote PSI’s motto: “You are not alone, you are not to blame. With help, you will be well”.
Shannon is a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern specializing in maternal mental health. She is a professional member of Postpartum Support International. Her office is located in Fort Myers where she lives with her husband and two sons.