Stigma & PPD: Does your family understand?
When an individual is afflicted by a medical condition, society willingly accepts their illness, and the individual can openly share that they are “not feeling well” with others. With a more serious health condition, it is often not only accepted but expected that the individual will be given time off from work, extra care, empathy and support. However, if an individual is suffering from a mental illness, society does not respond with the same empathy, care and support it would for an individual diagnosed with a medical condition. In society, there is stigma attached to mental illness. Although mental illness has been part of humanity for as long as our species has existed, the general reaction to mood disorders is judgment, lack of understanding, and fear, which is brought on by a general ignorance on the subject.
A significant amount of women are affected by a mood disorder in connection with pregnancy and/or the postpartum period every year. Literature states that approximately 15 to 30% of women are affected by perinatal mood disorders. However, this statistic is believed to be much higher as so many women do not come forward because of the stigma attached to PMD's. Many women suffer in silence, enduring unnecessary pain when their condition is diagnosable and treatable.
Furthermore, Moms who share what they are experiencing with their family and friends do not always receive the support and understanding they hope for and need. Often family members and friends quickly dismiss the mood disorder their loved one is experiencing, due to their own lack of education and awareness on the subject. In addition, family members and friends can also be judgmental, drawing untrue, unhelpful and hurtful conclusions. When a person dealing with a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety, is treated in such a way, it can make things much worse for the individual.
In an article written by a sufferer of depression, Sarah explains “Not only do people with mental health conditions suffer inside, they are judged on a daily basis by those closest to them.” For example, Sarah recalls family members or friends stating “what’s wrong with her again”, “you’d feel better if you left your house once in a while”, “you’re just having a bad day.”
Family and friends may often have good intentions, hoping to ease and minimize the experiences related to perinatal mood disorders. However, they may not realize their words often sound patronizing, as if they are downplaying the sufferer’s experiences rather than understanding the sufferer’s situation.
The reality is, that it is difficult for someone who has never been through a mental illness to be understanding of someone who is. However it is not difficult to show compassion and love, nor difficult to care enough to find a way to be supportive or understanding. Yet many don't bother.
Another Mom shares that her Mother would inquire on rare occasions about her health during the postpartum period, saying things like “everyone has been worried about you lately” with little added help or care. Statements like “You just have cabin fever.” “I really don't know how to help you,” and “If you know what the problem is, it shouldn't be a problem any longer.” Genuine love, attention and concern for this Mom and her situation was not shown by her own Mother. When she turned to her husband's family, she faced lack of understanding and judgment. When she turned to her husband, she faced more of the same.
It is incredibly sad that some Moms and sometimes Dads do not receive the support and understanding they need and deserve. Yet, if these individuals were suffering from a “more acceptable illness” such as diabetes, their family and friends would be significantly more understanding. We must, all of us, ask ourselves: What can we do to change this? What can we do to reduce stigma? How can we be more supportive and understanding?
If you are a sufferer of a perinatal mood disorder and are looking for ways to help your family & friends understand what you are experiencing, below are some tips you may find helpful:
1. Help them to help you: Sit down together and have an open discussion. Try to find places where each of you can relate to one another (for example: do you both feel angry, scared, overwhelmed, or frustrated?).
2. Invite them to join you for a therapy session, in order to gain some understanding as well as be a support for you.
3. Clearly ask for the support you need. Things like meeting you own needs, help with the baby, and chores & errands.
4. Share some literature with them about Perinatal Mood Disorders. Things like sharing an article or two in print or online, directing them to our website or similar site, or possibly emailing some information about the illness if that is an effective route of communication for you and/or them.
5. If open discussion and/or clear communication are not or will not be effective with those close to you, consider and try to accept their limitations in understanding what you are going through as much as you can, to save yourself as much hurt and frustration as possible.
Are you a friend or family member of someone going through a perinatal mood disorder such as postpartum depression? If so, below is a list of ways you can be more understanding and supportive:
1. Don't be shocked or disappointed if your partner, friend or relative says she believes she may have a perinatal mood disorder. It is more common than you think, it is diagnosable, and it is treatable.
2. Take some time to be sure that you understand what perinatal mood disorders are. You can do this in many ways: Research & reading on the internet on websites like ours; Speak with a few healthcare professionals; Do some reading at the library or in the pregnancy/postpartum section at a bookstore.
3. Simply be there for, and listen to, the person in your life who is affected by a PMD. Often that is all someone who is affected by a mood disorder needs. Do not offer unwanted advice, or draw conclusions, or judge. Simply listen, offer support and some comfort. Reassure this person that they are not alone and they will get better.
4. Encourage your partner, relative or friend to get the help and treatment they need. Offer to go with them to a doctor appointment or support group.
5. Ask what kind of support they need in their life right now to make things a little bit easier. It will be different for everyone, so be respectful of their wishes. Some Moms will want help with the baby, other's may only want help with household things, or possibly errands.
6. It is crucially important that someone dealing with a mood disorder eats very healthy, lots of fresh food from all of the food groups, and lots of foods know to promote brain health. Often Moms with babies and children of any age find eating healthy to be a challenge. This can be exacerbated by the onset of a mood disorder such as depression. Without being so forward as to tell this person what to eat, do what you can to help her eat better and get the nutrients she needs. Be subtle but effective.
7. If you are the partner of the person experiencing a perinatal mood disorder, be sure that you are being as supportive and understanding as you can possibly be, and also be sure to get some support for yourself. It is not easy caring for someone affected by mental illness. There is a lot of literature out there with information on how to support a partner affected by mental illness, and how to support the partner as well. Do some research. Be informed.