Who, what & why?
Up to 30% of all new mothers, in all cultures and circumstances, develop Postnatal Depression during the first year after the birth of a baby. This is a clinical depression, and it is nobody’s fault. It will be difficult for you to understand the depths of despair, anxiety or unhappiness, unless you have, yourself, experienced depression.
It is all consuming and totally debilitating; everything feels like too much effort; the sufferer feels guilty and worthless, and totally overwhelmed and out of control. She may even believe that her life is not worth living, and that the family would be better off without her.
Why it happens to some people is not easy to explain. Generally, it is thought to be the result of a combination of factors: physical, psychological and social, and it often occurs in very high-achieving, perfectionist women, who experience the adjustment to a new baby as a time of being out of control of their lives.
Changes in behaviour
Not only is a depressed person’s mood sad. There are other major changes in thinking and behaviour. More often than not, there is a loss of interest in sex, and sleep patterns change. Some people wake, and are unable to fall asleep again; others are continually tired, and want to sleep all the time. (These difficulties are unrelated to being woken by the baby). Some people cannot eat, and lose their appetites, while others crave carbohydrates. The depressed person is often irritable, hostile, pessimistic, and unable to concentrate. It is tough living with a depressed person.
How can you help?
Depression is not the result of lack of willpower, or a weak character. The person cannot “snap out of it” or “pull herself together”. Nor can she cure herself by trying harder to be happy or more active, or by “looking on the bright side” or “counting your blessings”. If you are trying constantly to cheer her up, you will probably make matters worse. You will feel frustrated and discouraged, and she will feel more guilty, and that you do not understand her.
But there are ways in which you can make life a little easier for the depressed person:
- Get professional help – Contact a health professional. You can’t manage alone.
- Listen to her when she talks about her feelings. You don’t need to offer solutions, or “fix” things. Just listen; hug her; assure her that you will not abandon her.
- Don’t criticize – Depressed people cannot tolerate criticism; they already have feelings of inadequacy and failure. If they are criticized, they will become more discouraged, will fall apart, and become even less decisive and less competent.
- Give unconditional acceptance – You don’t have to agree with her perceptions and distortions. Just believe that she is living in a dark world, and that it is real for her.
- Don’t take things personally – Your loved one’s depression is not your fault, nor it is hers. Do not take responsibility for it.
- Don’t push the depressed person into doing things for which she is not ready.
- Don’t patronise – This is difficult, because you will have to learn when your help is welcome and when it makes her feel incompetent. Remember that there is a difference between being helpful, and taking over.
- Stay calm! – This is easier said than done, as she will be irritable, inconsistent and extremely needy at times. She may also seem to withdraw from you emotionally on occasion. Remember that you are the “well” one.
- Be supportive – This means anticipating the other person’s needs, and accepting her feelings.
- Your needs are important too
- Because it is extremely frustrating to live with a depressed person, you may, at times, feel hostile and even depressed yourself. As far as is possible, try to keep your own life stable.
- Take time for yourself. Take a break every now and then, and explain kindly and firmly to your partner, that you need to do this. (Give her a break from the baby too, on a regular basis.)
- Take care of your body. Be sure to exercise, rest and eat right. You cannot afford to lose morale or become ill.
- Don’t become a martyr. While you will certainly want to give more time and energy to your partner and family during her depression, be sure to give it freely, and without resentment. Pat yourself on the back! You are doing a great job, and it is very difficult. Do not give up all your interests.
What about the children?
Depression in a parent is very difficult for children to manage, and they are at risk for developing problems, now or later. Even babies can become depressed, and older children may develop learning or behavioural difficulties. Get professional help if you are worried about the children.
The children need to understand that they are not to blame for a parent’s depression. They also need to know that their mother will recover. You will help them greatly if you, as the non-depressed parent, spend plenty of time with them. Be sure not to draw them into any conflict that may develop between you and your partner. It is also helpful to encourage them to take part in activities outside the home, so that their happiness is not too closely linked to how their mother is feeling that day.
Why has our sex life suffered?
Depression flattens all positive emotions, including the libido. This is often the first sign of the depression, and one of the last symptoms to disappear. Also, some anti-depressant medications have this side effect. The fact that your loved one does not want sexual intimacy at this time does not mean that she does not love you. Mothers of new babies, even when they are not depressed, usually take up to six months or longer before they are ready to resume a “normal” sex life. This will certainly be frustrating for you, but try not to feel rejected and hurt. Find other ways of being loving to each other.
Will our lives ever return to normal?
Postnatal Depression is a treatable illness, but untreated can become chronic. How long it takes for a woman to recover, will depend on many factors, including how quickly she receives the correct help. A combination of anti-depressant medication (which is not addictive), psychotherapy or counselling, and attending a Support Group, works very well. Your loved one will need your encouragement every step of the way. Do not pressure her to be “well” before she is well. Encourage her efforts, no matter how slight they seem. Above all, do not criticize her. And remind yourself that you are doing your best.
New fathers get depressed too
I have focused on the depressed new mother. Research has recently shown that fathers may also develop Postnatal Depression. All the suggestions made in this article are applicable to men as well. If you are a woman, and you think your children’s father is depressed, please take his feelings seriously. Becoming a parent is a major life transition, with all the attendant risks.