If you are the spouse, partner, significant other, or support person of a woman who is experiencing perinatal challenges, you are not alone. Over 20% of all childbearing women develop what is clinically called postpartum depression/anxiety (PPD). A significant percentage of those women also experience depression or anxiety while pregnant. As her primary support, this may feel overwhelming. You may be wondering how to help her.
Here are my suggestions, both as a therapist who specializes in helping families with postpartum challenges, and also as a survivor of PPD.
Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to my wonderful support people: my dear husband, my mother and father, my mother-in-law, and my siblings. I am so fortunate to have them in my life and my children’s lives. Without them, my PPD experience would have been much more challenging. I am forever grateful to these beautiful people.
How to Support Someone with PPD
Here are some suggestions for helping your loved one, learned from personal and professional experience.
- Seek competent help. Don’t try to diagnose her yourself. PPD is not what the media portrays it to be, and you may be misinformed. Go to Postpartum Support International (www.postpartum.net) for a list of co-coordinators in each state or country who can provide you with resources for perinatal specialists (psychotherapists, psychiatrists, support groups, lactation consultants, and more). She needs a thorough assessment by a trained perinatal professional, who can then determine a comprehensive treatment plan involving multidisciplinary, trained helpers.
- If you suspect your wife or loved one is experiencing a psychiatric emergency, take her immediately to the hospital for an evaluation. This can help you to access support services and interventions.
- Educate yourself about perinatal mood/anxiety disorders (PMAD). Once it’s confirmed that your loved one is experiencing a PMAD, seek out facts, information, and online support groups for clients and their family members. Postpartum Support International (www.postpartum.net) can help with these resources as well.
- Tell her when you notice she is getting better. She will look to you for evidence that she is recovering. Supportive phrases like, “I see you smiling today,” or “You were singing in the shower!” can go a long way.
- Encourage her to rest, exercise, and get good nutrition. Help her with baby care, and line up additional support if necessary, such as extended family or postpartum doulas and caregivers (www.DONA.org).
- Attend her appointments with her. These can include therapy, medication management, well-baby appointments, well-mama appointments, and more.
- Work with healing professionals to support your loved one. These may be lactation consultants, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, postpartum doulas, or other healing professionals.
- Get support for yourself. This is a very difficult time, and you need encouragement and emotional and practical support as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Remind your loved one that she is experiencing a medical condition. It will resolve with treatment, but it is not an experience she can easily “snap out of.” Postpartum challenges are influenced by biochemistry, genetic predisposition, hormonal fluctuations, and sleep deprivation, among other factors. With treatment, she will get better. Tell her that, even if both of you feel discouraged. It’s the truth.
- Remember that PPD is not anyone’s fault. Unfortunately, stigma exists about getting help for perinatal challenges, even though PPD is basically poorly-timed anxiety and depression. PPD can happen to all women of all socioeconomic backgrounds. It does not discriminate.
- If medications are indicated, support her. A person would not ignore doctor’s advice to receive interventions for diabetes or pneumonia, so why are we so resistant to obtaining support for our brains? Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, is highly susceptible to fluctuations in the perinatal stage. This can be due to rapid hormonal shifts and sleep deprivation, among other factors. If a woman is experiencing significantly distressing symptoms, her provider may recommend medication management in addition to a wide range of holistic approaches. We must be vigilant and attentive in order to help our loved ones receive the services they need and deserve.
- If she chooses to let go of breast-feeding, support her. If she is facing a PMAD that requires sleep recovery for resolution, she may not feel she can continue breast-feeding. She may feel very guilty for doing so. If she wishes to continue breast-feeding, encourage her and help her via bottle-feeding the baby at night, either with pumped breast-milk or supplemented formula. Get a night-nurse, if you can afford it. Supportive extended family members may be able to go in shifts with you for night feedings so that Mom can get rest and restore her serontonin.
- Make sure you are also getting rest. You both need five consecutive hours of sleep to restore serotonin. Monitor yourself for signs of a PMAD. Fathers, partners, adoptive parents, and support persons can also experience PMAD, even without experiencing the hormonal influences that birth mothers do.
- Remain positive. This is temporary. She will recover, and there are trained perinatal professionals who can guide you through this.
© Copyright 2011 by Andrea Schneider, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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