Experts offer guidance for postpartum mental health
Around 80% of mothers experience “baby blues,” a period of time following birth characterized by low moods and energy. For some, this can lead to postpartum depression or anxiety, which can persist for months and might not show up at all until weeks later. Despite how common these experiences are, new and expecting parents are often unprepared for these emotions and are unsure of where and how to seek help.
BEMIDJI, Minn. — Myths surrounding new motherhood abound.
New parents are immediately filled with joy and love; bonding with the baby is simple and easy; it’s simply magical.
Of course, these things may happen to some extent, but they certainly aren’t the only things that a new parent might experience.
Contrary to these happy expectations, mothers and fathers are often exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed.
“There’s a lot of myths of motherhood that it’s supposed to be this joyous experience, everything is supposed to be wonderful,” said Cailee Furer, director of the Bemidji Early Childhood Collaborative, “and the truth is it’s not always like that.”
Around 80% of mothers experience “baby blues,” a period of time following birth characterized by low moods and energy. For some, this can lead to postpartum depression or anxiety, which can persist for months and might not show up at all until weeks later.
Despite how common these experiences are, new and expecting parents are often unprepared for these emotions and are unsure of where and how to seek help.
Even an Obstetrics and Gynecology Specialist such as Dr. Johnna Nynas at Sanford Health in Bemidji, who has worked with new and soon-to-be mothers for years, found her personal experience with postpartum depression challenging.
“It was a really difficult thing to experience first hand,” said Nynas, “and that really changed how I practice medicine and how I approach these patients.”
Postpartum depression is incredibly common, with one in seven women experiencing it. Around 25% of fathers also show symptoms of postpartum depression.
Feeling sad, irritable, fearful or emotionally disconnected can all be a sign of postpartum depression. Many report difficulties with sleep, obsessing over safety, or a feeling of guilt or shame.
There can also be "red flag" symptoms, which include thoughts of harming yourself or the baby, seeing or hearing things that aren't there, or being unable to think or communicate properly. If someone is experiencing any of these, it is important to seek immediate medical attention.
“It’s the most common complication of pregnancy and postpartum,” said Malissa Kerr, a childbirth educator and doula who specializes in perinatal mental health. “And, it’s not the mother’s fault.”
These feelings can last for months or even a year after giving birth and can be overwhelming and isolating. In many cases, new mothers are hesitant to speak about it, for fear of judgment.
“They’re afraid to tell people ‘this is how I’m feeling,'" Kerr explained. “They’re afraid they’ll be looked at like a bad mother who’s not doing a good enough job.”
Another reason new parents might not seek help is that they might not recognize what they are going through as postpartum depression or anxiety. This can be from a lack of awareness and information about these conditions, or from carefully masking their stress as productivity and good parenting.
“They can seem really put together and that’s how it looks on the outside,” Nynas said. “But on the inside that constant motion, that constant having to make sure everything is perfect, is actually a manifestation of uncontrolled anxiety.”
Combating the stigma
Like many other parts of mental health, postpartum depression and anxiety have had large amounts of stigma attached to them for decades. Discussing them was and still can be considered taboo, despite how common they are.
“I think mental health, in general, has historically had a lot of stigma behind it,” said Nynas. "The stigma is getting better, but there’s still a stigma.”
She explained that a primary way to combat this is to talk honestly about experiences with birth and with postpartum depression and anxiety. This can be with both other parents or health professionals.
New parents already experience high expectations around what they should be doing, and a considerable amount of judgment can follow if they don’t meet those expectations. This can further complicate discussions around postpartum mental health and make them more difficult.
“I think there’s a lot of genuine fear, particularly in women,” Nynas said, “that if we admit that things aren’t OK, or things aren’t what we expected, that it’s somehow admitting failure, which is absolutely not true.”
Even though there can be hesitancy surrounding sharing challenges with mental health, it still remains a crucial part of seeking help and reducing the stigmatization.
“Just having a safe space to talk about it and acknowledge it,” added Furer. “To know that you’re not alone is really powerful.”