with Executive Director Dr. Wendy Davis
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- How Postpartum Depression and Anxiety Impact New Moms
- The Importance of Holistic Treatment for Postpartum Mood Disorders
- The Role Partners Can Play in Support
- The Risk Factors for Postpartum Mood Disorders
- Why Anger Arises as a Symptom of Postpartum Depression and Anxiety
- When to Seek Help With Overcoming Postpartum Anxiety and Depression
Overcoming postpartum depression and anxiety isn’t easy. When we’re suffering from postpartum mood disorders, the symptoms make us believe that we are the problem—that we are failing as mothers.
But with awareness and the right support, we can find resources and overcome mood disorders during the postpartum period. Today, I’m joined by Dr. Wendy Davis, executive director of Postpartum Support International to discuss how to overcome postpartum depression and anxiety.
Missing the Symptoms and Feeling Like a Failure
When I experienced postpartum depression, I didn’t recognize the symptoms at first. It wasn’t until a couple of months into my third maternity leave that everything boiled over and I realized I needed help.
I had the experience, the expertise, and the resources to understand what was happening. But I still overlooked it—I still felt that I was the problem, that I just couldn’t handle motherhood.
I have heard this same story from many other therapists. So many of us have training and knowledge about anxiety, depression, and mood disorders, but we still don’t recognize it when we experience it ourselves.
Dr. Wendy was the same way. She had been a psychotherapist for a decade when her first baby was born. Living through postpartum depression and anxiety was something different entirely.
She shared that despite her training, despite her experience, and despite understanding anxiety and depression for her whole life, when she developed symptoms, she didn’t recognize them—she thought that she had failed, that she should never have become a mom, and that she was broken.
Now, she has dedicated her career to helping other moms who are going through that same experience, so that they can understand that they aren’t failing—they are suffering.
How Postpartum Depression and Anxiety Impact New Moms
One of the reasons why postpartum mental health issues go overlooked is that the symptoms lead us to shut down. People who struggle with depression often find themselves lacking interest and enjoyment in their lives.
But when moms experience this, they feel ashamed. They have been told that motherhood will be a joyful experience, full of love and connection. When moms find themselves wanting to withdraw, they think they are just not cut out for motherhood.
They don’t want to talk about what they are experiencing. They don’t want to admit they aren’t feeling this overwhelming love and happiness they think they should feel. So instead of seeking help, they often try to dismiss and push down their feelings.
This is what both Dr. Wendy and I went through. But ultimately, we both sought help for our struggles, and both have used that experience to become better advocates for maternal mental health.
Dr. Wendy said that in a way, she is grateful for the suffering she experienced. It allowed her to show her children that when you struggle with mental health, it’s important to find someone to talk to. It also fueled her to start volunteering to help other birthing people experiencing the same struggles—a path that ultimately led her to be the first executive director of PSI.
She wants everyone who is struggling to know that they are not broken, and that their children are not harmed if they seek help—in fact, children are impacted in a positive way when their parents take care of their mental health.
The Importance of Holistic Treatment for Postpartum Mood Disorders
Dr. Wendy believes that it’s important, not just to help people not suffer, but also to help people make meaning out of their suffering. We can’t prevent suffering—it’s a part of the human experience. But we can make something different out of it.
PSI approaches postpartum mental healthcare holistically. The causes of perinatal mental health issues are made up of many different parts—physical, psychological, environmental, and spiritual.
For example, new moms might be impacted by hormones, but they can also be restricted by culture, society, or trauma.
Dr. Wendy believes that an effective treatment must also be holistic and be made up of those same parts. It can’t just be medical. Moms need support from doulas, lactation consultants, therapists, and professionals across a range of holistic treatment options.
The Role Partners Can Play in Support
Partner support is another big piece of the postpartum mental health puzzle. PSI offers resources to partners to help them identify the signs of PPD and PPA and offer support.
Dr. Wendy pointed out that there are all kinds of partners—there are partners within relationships, whether same-sex or different-sex, but there are also other support partners—including grandparents, friends, and neighbours.
Anybody who helps a birthing person during the postpartum time is a partner. If we’re lucky, we have multiple support partners. Dr. Wendy also acknowledged single parents, who carry extra burdens and difficulties. She said it’s even more important for them to seek support partners wherever they can find them.
Partners play a big role in support for postpartum mental health. Dr. Wendy pointed out that they can be a sounding board, act as the first ones to recognize potential mental health issues, and encourage their partners to reach out for support.
We tend to think that if we ask for help we are failing, but as Dr. Wendy said, traditional societies had multiple caregivers living in the home. It’s normal and natural to need help.
If you are a partner of someone who is pregnant or recently gave birth, keep an eye out. If they seem to be struggling with their mental health, encourage calling in more hands—having someone bring dinner or come help with the baby. You can also help relieve some of the burdens. For example, remind your partner that they don’t need to clean the house every day or do extra work around the house.
Remember that your partner is going through something temporary. You didn’t cause it, and you can’t actually fix it, but you can make it better or worse with your actions.
Offer encouragement and support for your partner. Dr. Wendy shared that when she was struggling her husband told her, “you need two things that you don’t have right now—time and confidence. But you will eventually have them. And until then, I believe in you.” Words of encouragement can go a long way in helping support our partners during mental health struggles.
Dr. Wendy also pointed out that all parents are susceptible to PPD and PPA. In fact, 1 in 10 dads get diagnosable PPD. Adoptive parents, guardians, and parents of all forms are going through big changes and can struggle with mental health.
It can be disorienting to see someone you love, someone who is usually a pillar of strength, suffering. But when we keep an eye out for each other, when we know how to identify issues, how to be aware, and how to ask the right questions and offer support, we can help out partners through difficult times.
The Risk Factors for Postpartum Mood Disorders
It’s also important to know the risk factors for developing postpartum mood disorders in advance. Anybody can develop PPD and PPA, but there are people that are more inclined to struggle, including:
- Those who are highly sensitive to hormonal change
- People who don’t have adequate housing, food, or freedom
- And people who are hyper-independent or have perfectionist personalities
This is another reason why it’s often so jarring to see our partners suffer from postpartum mental health issues—many times it is those who are always in control that find themselves struggling the most.
Those people are used to not asking for help. They try to do everything for themselves. But those coping strategies don’t tend to work in the postpartum period. Doing everything by yourself is not necessarily the best way to have and raise a baby—we need support.
Dr. Wendy encourages people to let others in. It’s not a failure to ask for help—it’s a success, for our children, for our partners, and for ourselves.
Why Anger Arises as a Symptom of Postpartum Depression and Anxiety
Anger is one of the most overlooked symptoms of PPD and PPA. When we experience Mom Rage, we often feel shame. We want to hide it instead of talk about it.
This is especially true for mothers of colour who often fear that if they express the anger they feel, they run the risk of being reported to social services.
Dr. Wendy said it’s important to remember that anger is a symptom of PPD and PPA, but violence is not. Anger comes from stress—it doesn’t usually mean you are going to harm anyone. More often, it gets internalized, damaging our relationship with ourselves or our partner.
She compared it to a pot boiling over—it doesn’t mean the ingredients in the pot are wrong; it just means that we need to turn the heat down and maybe get a second pot to pour some of the water into.
Anger is a way our bodies tell us we are coping with too much and that we need help.
Dr. Wendy said that if you notice that your partner is experiencing uncharacteristic rage, the question you should ask is not “What’s wrong with her?” It’s, “What’s happening for her?”
If you are the one experiencing rage, the question should not be, “What’s wrong with me?” It should be, “What can I do in this moment to make this better?”
But the good news is that skills to manage rage are teachable. We can learn strategies for in and out of the moment to manage our anger and feel better.
(If you’re struggling with this, All the Rage: Raising kids with less anger and more connection can help! We cover the strategies you need to navigate the difficult moments of parenthood.)
When to Seek Help With Overcoming Postpartum Anxiety and Depression
The shame and sense of failure around struggling in motherhood often serve as a barrier to seeking treatment.
Dr. Wendy pointed out that many people who call PSI often start the conversation with, “I’m not sure if I should even be calling you, but…”
If we want to improve the outlook for new moms, we need to reframe that thinking. We shouldn’t have to wait until we are in crisis to seek help.
You don’t need a diagnosis, a breakdown, or extreme symptoms to seek help. In fact, it’s better if you get resources before you get to that point.
I know that I wish that I had sought help earlier. The day I asked for help is the day motherhood opened up for me.
There is power in talking about our struggles. There is power in being open. And, even though it takes courage and strength, there is power in admitting we need help.
If you’re struggling, reach out to a mom therapist for help! Our Wellness Center can connect you with one near you. Book a free 15 minute consult today!
Dr. Wendy Davis lives in Portland Oregon, USA, and is the executive Director of Postpartum Support International (PSI), the world’s largest perinatal mental health organization. PSI provides direct support services to families, trains professionals, and is a bridge to connect the two. Dr. Wendy began her career as a psychotherapist, and became a specialist in perinatal mental health after recovering from postpartum depression and anxiety. She became PSI Executive Director in 2009, and leads PSI’s delivery of perinatal mental health education, support, and services to pregnant and postpartum families and professionals. Dr. Wendy is an international educator, works with healthcare systems and government agencies, and trains social support specialists and professionals in perinatal mental health.
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- PSI Helpline: (Call/Text) 800-944-4773
- Help For Parents
- PSI Online Support Groups
- Postpartum Support International Facebook Group
- PSI Perinatal Mental Health Alliance For People Of Color
- Happy as a Mother Wellness Center
- All The Rage: Raising kids with with less anger and more connection