Expecting a new baby is perhaps one of the most beautiful and joyous moments in life, though it can also bring stress, anxiety, and mood changes to new mothers. Many women experience a brief period of ‘baby blues’ after childbirth because of the fluctuations in hormones. But for some women, about 1 in 10, the period after delivery brings the development of a more severe and longer-lasting form of depression: postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression is a mental health disorder that usually starts within four weeks after delivery and is linked to the chemical, social, and psychological changes after having a baby. Symptoms can range from trouble sleeping, mood changes, and severe anger or irritability, to frequent crying and sadness, being uninterested in your baby, and in some cases, thoughts of death or suicide. Sometimes, postpartum depression can also develop into postpartum psychosis, a serious disorder where you can lose touch with reality, have trouble sleeping due to hyperactivity, and experience hallucinations and/or delusions. It’s extremely important to get help as soon as possible after noticing any symptoms since psychosis comes with increased risk of harming yourself or others.
Even though postpartum mood disorders such as postpartum depression are common, they are rarely talked about. The shame, stigma, and misunderstanding of these disorders encourages silence in many women. But with mental health, one of the most helpful pillars of recovery comes from social support. How do we begin to break down the stigma surrounding postpartum depression and other mood disorders? With more mothers sharing their experiences, seeking support from loved ones and other mothers, as well as connecting with treatment providers, not only does stigma begin to diminish, but we can begin to end the silence surrounding this facet of women’s health.
Every mother’s experience with postpartum depression is different, and for some, the journey of recovery can be long and lonely. In 2003, after the birth of her second daughter, Aimee Caverly began to experience postpartum depression symptoms such as severe exhaustion, extreme anxiety, and weight changes. This soon developed into postpartum depression with psychosis, and Caverly spent a month in a psychiatric hospital when her new baby was nine months old. She was soon prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics, which she was intent on getting off of. Caverly expressed her shame surrounding her experience that spanned 10 years, noting her misdirected hope during those years that if she had a ‘strong enough faith in God’, she would be healed. During the onset of her symptoms, Caverly says, “ I also felt this pressure to be so excited to have children after trying so hard to conceive. There was a guilt that being real about my depression with others might seem that I was ungrateful. I mean having children is hard stuff, but I never felt I could reach out to anyone for help. All my friends were dealing with the same lack of sleep and similar fears about the well-being of their children so on some levels I felt what I was going through was normal.”
For many mothers, the concept of ‘being strong’ can put immense pressure on their shoulders. “Often new moms feel like they have to do it all. We try to maintain the pre-baby pace of life and so to have permission to care first for yourself, whatever that may look like, is so important,” Caverly said. Beyond the pressure and stress of taking care of a new little human, having to take medication for mental health has always been shrouded in shame and doubt, so for the next 10 years, Caverly went on and off her medication and in and out of hospitals.
Eventually, with the support of her husband, treatment from psychiatrists and therapists, medication, and outside support from NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), Caverly began to arrive at a stable and healing part of her recovery. In 2015, nearly 12 years after her initial diagnosis, she completed a training in a NAMI program, In Our Own Voice, which is a presentation that provides a personal perspective of mental health conditions, as leaders with lived experience talk openly about what it’s like to have a mental health condition. Caverly began to speak to hundreds of people at prisons, hospitals and churches about the importance of mental health and spreading the message that regardless of what you may be struggling with, our diagnosis doesn’t define us. During this time, Caverly felt as if she truly began to heal, noting, “We are all ultimately humans worthy of love, general kindness and hopes for future goodness. I began believing in myself again and spreading this message of hope.”
Sharing our stories of struggle can not only be healing and empowering for ourselves, but encouraging and inspirational to others. Your courage in sharing your story with someone else can help others feel less alone in their own struggle, and maybe even encourage them to take the first step in their own recovery. For Caverly, sharing her story breaks stigma surrounding mental health and postpartum mood disorders. She emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself as a mother, finding support in a caring community, and realizing you do not have to do it alone, “It takes a strong momma to get help for herself. There is no shame in going to a psychiatric hospital or in taking a pill. And if you are a person of faith feeling that your faith should be stronger, God is bigger than a pill and he still provides medicines to all kinds of people with other health conditions. It may not be the healing you were hoping for but in our broken world, often it is the best choice. Just like me, God may be healing you from way more than you realize when you take a step of faith towards caring for yourself in a positive way.”
Support exists. Treatment exists. Recovery is possible. Find postpartum resources below.
Kristen Luft is the Engagement & Outreach Coordinator at NAMI Wake County. She is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate (go heels!), where she earned her degree in Public Relations. Kristen is a mental health advocate, passionate about helping others through their recovery journeys and offering hope that living with a mental health condition still means you can live a full life.