Postpartum Depression: Why Mental Health Surveys Suck

I had a baby recently. It’s been a while since I popped one out, so all the hospital stuff was new to me and my postpartum short-term memory.

One BIG thing I noticed was the addition of questions regarding mental health. I not only filled out two questionnaires, I also verbally answered a survey the nurse gave. My obstetrician went over concerns at discharge. Then, two weeks later, the pediatrician’s office (read: at the appointment for the baby) included a typed survey in their New Patient paperwork.

Wonderful, I thought. But, also, Not really helpful.

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Why?

For anyone who’s fighting the Mental Illness Fight, you know that a simple, typed questionnaire is not sufficient. Theirs included questions like:

How often do you feel hopeless?

Have you cried uncontrollably in the last week?

Have you ever had thoughts of hurting yourself?

Great questions, yes? They’re almost as good as the responses you can choose from: Not very often, Often, Sometimes, No more than usual.

That final phrase is the one I chose most, and one that keeps flitting through my mind: No more than usual.

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No, nurses-doctor-pediatrician, I am not experiencing Postpartum Depression. It’s regular, run-of-the-mill Depression for me. Just hand me the baby, and we’ll (hopefully) make it through. Don’t worry -it’s no more than usual…

What’s the solution, then? Should the clinics not bother? Pretend these things don’t exist?

No, of course not.

When I first went to my obstetrician’s office, I saw a few papers taped to the back of the bathroom door. One encouraged women who felt they were in an abusive relationship to get help, and had tear-off phone numbers. Another paper discussed which contraceptives were most effective. The final flier caught my eye first: a bright, informative piece explaining that Postpartum Depression included things like anxiety or OCD or physical ailments as well, and to talk to your doctor if they cropped up.

At the time I saw that paper, I felt touched. I felt like dropping my urine protein test right away and giving the whole office staff a hug for including that information.

Since birthing and experiencing ‘usual’ symptoms, however, I’ve felt each nurse and doctor needs a short lecture. I’d begin with, “Make eye contact with your patient and ask them ‘yes-or-no’ questions.” Like:

Did you feel hopeless in the last week?

Did you cry?

Did you feel like hurting yourself?

Instead of Often, Usual, Never, etc., try a scale from 0-10. Or, try sitting and LISTENING sincerely to the woman’s responses.

Another helpful tip would be to explain what might happen if the answers are alarming. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t need the staff committing me to a psych ward because they don’t understand. I mean, maybe I just need a hug and a nap.

And medication.

The point is that mental health surveys are a good step in the right direction. With a little tweaking and lot more human interaction, they could even be helpful.

Let’s try it, and help those of us trying to fight mental illness. We might just ‘usual’ly beat it.

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©2019 Chelsea Owens

Photo Credit:
Liv Bruce
Zach Lucero
Jenna Norman
Kelly Sikkema

If Only, a poem about motherhood

“If only, if only,” the young mother sighs, “I did all the chores;” there’s hope in her eyes.
She washes and foldses and relocates toys.
She vacuums and bleaches and separates boys.

“If only, if only,” the young mother shouts, “You’d not kill your brother when I’m not about.”
She wrestles and time-outs and wait till Dad’s homes.
She chastens and kisses and picks up her phone.

“If only, if only,” the young mother frets, “I didn’t buy takeout whenever we’re stressed.”
She hustles and buckles and drives to the queue.
She searches and scrounges and pays for the food.

“If only, if only,” the young mother fears, “When I spent the money, the money was there.”
She saves scraps and worries and checks the receipts.
She eats less and coupons and admits defeats.

“If only, if only,” the young mother pleads, “You’d all go to bed so that there’s time for me.”
She chases and washes and brushes their teeth.
She last-drinks and stories and wishes sweet dreams.

She closets and darkens and blocks all her calls.
She’s lonely and hopeless and sees only walls.
“If only, if only,” the young mother cries, waiting for change till the day that she dies.

If you feel trapped like this, send me a message. At the very least, we can swap diaper stories.

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Daiga Ellaby

My advice for the Mom with Postpartum Mental Illness

Because both of my depressive episodes occurred during the postpartum period, I have learned a little bit with regard to how to handle this situation.  Most of it, I learned in hindsight–realizing things my husband and I would have done differently after the fact.  I’m no expert, but I have a few things I’d like to share that I hope will help someone else.

First, get help immediately.  Speaking from my own experience as well as from friends that I know who have gone through similar experiences–it pays to talk to a professional right away.  If you aren’t sure about medications yet, try a therapist first.  If you are having difficulty with intense anger, feeling “wrong” mentally, having mood swings, intense fears and anxiety and especially if you are experiencing suicidal ideation or thoughts–I personally recommend seeing a psychiatrist as soon as possible.  This is just my personal recommendation as a fellow sufferer–if I can’t function then I can’t take care of anyone else.  With a new baby depending on me for all of their basic needs and more, I need to get better.  For me, medication was essential.  Don’t delay your care!  In my experience, these things tend to get worse when they aren’t addressed.  Get help immediately.

Second, get as much good sleep as possible.  Did you just shake your fist at the computer?  Or maybe you threw your phone across the room.  Did I forget you have a newborn that wakes at all hours of the night?  Trust me, I know this all too well.  After my last baby I got to the point where I could not even fall asleep at night because I was already in a panic about having to wake up in just a few short hours.  My symptoms were compounding and getting worse due to sleep deprivation.  The worse I felt, the harder it was to sleep–it was a vicious cycle.  This brings me to sub-point 2a: Consider bottle feeding.  This was a hard decision for my very over-extended mind.  I wanted to do what was best for my baby.  Of course breastmilk is the ideal food for a human infant, but you know what is an even more ideal situation for an infant?  A mother who is emotionally and mentally able to care for her child and herself.  Formula is a modern day miracle, in my opinion.  It allows women, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, to feed their own babies–and allows others to help.  Make the choice that allows you to be the best mom you can be, and don’t let anybody else guilt you into choosing otherwise.  Bottle-feeding will allow others the ability to help with night (and day) feedings which will give you more sleep.

Third, let others help!  Don’t try to be a hero.  The first thing you need help with is the night feedings.  Enlist the help of your partner or other family member or friend.  The best situation here is probably to alternate nights.  You do one night, your helper does the next night.  Then you each get a night of full sleep every other day.  If I were to ever have more children, my husband and I would hire a person in to do the night feedings.  I have no idea how expensive this is, but wouldn’t that be a dream?  That’s not realistic for most, so really tap into your support system here.  Sleep is a non-negotiable part of your recovery.

My husband, was my hero during this time.  Knowing that I couldn’t function without sleep, after we switched to bottle feeding, he handled all of the night feedings for me, every single night, while still working full time–and this baby did not sleep through the night for many months.  As you can imagine, this was detrimental to my husband’s health.  He was in a constant state of burnout for months and this took it’s toll on him.  I wish we would have brought in outside help.  No person is invincible.  I was in no position to help with making important decisions, as incapacitated as I was, and Ryan (my husband) was just trying to make it through each day.

Ask for outside help.  When a parent is struggling with mental illness it affects the whole family.

Let others help in any way they might offer.  Maybe you have a friend who offers to bring you dinner–don’t turn her down!  Let your friend bring dinner.  Maybe someone offers to watch your baby/children so that you can get away for a break, or take a nap.  Let them.  Don’t turn down any offers for help.  This is not the time for you to act like you’ve got things together.  This is a time for others to help you as much as possible so that you can take care of yourself.

Fourth, share what you are going through with others.  This goes along with number 3.  If others don’t know what is going one, they won’t reach out to help.

When I was pregnant with my 4th baby, I was on bedrest for about 9 weeks due to some complications.  Our church community knew what was going on and arranged to bring dinner in for our family, 3 days a week for that full 9 weeks.  Many people also came and helped with cleaning, took my older children on outings, and visited me because I was home-bound and needed company.  This was a sweet experience to be the recipient of so many acts of service.  It made me want to do the same for others as soon as I got back on my feet.

I never got back on my feet.  With the onset of my mood swings and extreme depression, I was really struggling to get through minute by minute, day by day.  Although people knew I was having a hard time, they didn’t really know the extent, and if they did know–they did not know how to support and help us in this situation.  I was only open with a few people about what was actually going on.  Having just received so much help while on bed rest, and being so mixed up mentally, I didn’t even think to ask for help from our friends and family.  My husband and I  just struggled through this extremely difficult time on our own.

If I could do it again, I would have opened my mouth more–or had my husband open his mouth, to those we knew.  I know people would have rallied around us and helped in any way they could, but we never gave them the opportunity.  We could have used dinners on occasion, help with cleaning, help with our children, from time to time–this would have lightened our load considerably.  Don’t follow our bad example.  Reach out to your support system–let them know what is going on and tell them you need help.

Fifth, make time for yourself.  With the help of family and friends, schedule time for yourself, every single day.  If you have one child, this might be done while your baby sleeps.  If you have multiple children, call in help for child care so that you can get away from the house and do something you enjoy, or just relax, away from the cares of mothering.  You are important!  You are the glue that keeps everything together at home.  You will be a better mother to your children and a happier person if you will figured out how to make this for yourself, every single day.  This needs to be a non-negotiable part of your self-care.

Sixth, go into survival mode.  You can read more about this here.

You will get through this time and things will get better.  Enjoy your new baby as much as you can.  I spent lots of time just holding my last baby.  Partly because I knew he would be our last child and partly because that physical connection to another human was good for me emotionally.  It’s good for your baby, as well.

If you need more suggestions for navigating depression, check out my other posts.

Have you lived through postpartum mental illness in the past?  Share how you got through it.  Are you in the middle of it right now?  Share your story.

The First and Last of the Dark Days

I learned from another blogger that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I think many of us with mental health concerns find the stigma around it to be truly terrifying. It can push us inward and leave many of us feeling unwanted or hushed. Suffering in silence and alone is not healthy for anyone, including those around us. Today, I wanted to share with you a quick glimpse of my first darkest of days and my last. There have been many times in between, but consistently I pull myself through, and each time I do, the darkest days come less frequently, and are not as dark as the previous.

September 1996. The pressure to choose a major, before I returned for my third year of school, was being hammered upon me. The weight of this decision was unbearable. I saw many friends easily sticking with a major, planning out projects, collaborations, and internships. The feeling of not belonging created a snowball effect and caused me to fall into classic avoidance behavior.

On the first day I was late to class, probably not by accident. I can’t remember what class it was, but I do remember the feeling of standing outside the door, hearing the professor already speaking, that hallowed silence from the rest of the students, and I knew I couldn’t go inside. My first panic attack occurred outside of that room. I felt like a heavy blanket was thrown over me, I couldn’t breathe or concentrate. My legs felt weak, thoughts in my head were disjointed, and flight or fight kicked in. Flight won.

I dropped out of school that week. This was the beginning of the anxiety and panic attacks that I kept hidden from friends and family. I choose at that time to suffer in silence because I was confused, scared, and embarrassed. The darkest days turned into months and years, eventually it seemed I grew out of it, and was hopeful it was behind me for good. I think what occurred was I learned to avoid triggers and found confidence in areas I didn’t have before through life lessons and eventually returning to school.

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May 2017. The last time I felt this way was after my third child was born. By now I had learned some coping methods and found professional help on and off, though the feeling of shame still prevented me from being open with loved ones. I had this beautiful healthy baby, and I’d done this two times before. This should be easy. So, why was it so hard? Lack of sleep, constant breast feeding, and lack of overall care for myself, all played into my downward spiral. I was becoming very short tempered with everyone around me, I insisted on keeping my house spotless, and controlling every detail of the family. I believe I was on the borderline of OCD, accompanied with postpartum anxiety.

One day my parents and my sisters were being indecisive about something, what it was I can’t recall. I screamed at one of my sisters over the phone, something I never do. My blood pressure must have been through the roof, something rose up inside of me and clicked, I have a problem! This is not normal. I need help.

Being that it had been 20 years since my first panic attack, anxiety was not new to me. I recognized that I needed help ASAP and if I didn’t get it all of those around me would be feeling the brunt of my actions. It wasn’t fair to them. I found a new therapist through postpartum online hotline, one within my insurance network. I did research online to my symptoms, read articles about diet and supplements that would be helpful; I researched other medications as well, continued with acupuncture, started to be more physically active. Most importantly, I caught myself when my temper was rising. I knew it was due to anxiety, just knowing this helped me curb it.

The first of the darkest days was the hardest for me, it was so new and confusing. Over the years I have learned to overcome so much. The journey is ongoing. Anxiety is a part of me, but I fight it. It doesn’t control me like it used to, and I will take that as a WIN.