How Shame Gets In The Way of Postpartum Depression Recovery

By Kate Kripke, LCSW

It seems that the majority of my posts end up coming across as discussions on why it is important to reach out for support if you are struggling with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder like postpartum depression, which makes sense, I guess, since I am a psychotherapist who specializes in supporting women through these issues.

Truthfully, what drives my topics every few weeks are the trends that I see here in my work, in an attempt to give a snapshot of what is REALLY happening for REAL women who are struggling through these often debilitating challenges.  And so, today, I target both of these issues as I once again send out a plea for authentic and brave attempts for support and also a very true message about the reality that the shame associated with postpartum depression plays in the hindrance of this support.

Shame.  It’s a strong word, right?

Mental illness is associated with all kinds of stereotypes: homelessness, joblessness, filth, insanity, murder, suicide, “craziness”, inadequacy, incapability … so many words and images that are frightening and downright unacceptable to many, many people.  These stereotypes are also inaccurate, although many people who don’t have all of the correct information may not think so.  Because of the misinformation out there about mental illnesses like postpartum depression and anxiety, people feel great shame when symptoms of mental illness become part of their reality. It’s no longer something to discuss about “other” people but actually something that is happening to themselves.  And when mental illness happens after a new baby is born, at a time when the world leads us to believe that we are supposed to feel our best, shame can be at an all time high.

“How can a good, loving, acceptable mother also be mentally ill?”  So many ask.  It just doesn’t fit the picture that we hold of new mothers when we also associate this term with the above stereotypes, does it?

Mental Illness is a term that can feel harsh and critical and unfamiliar to many moms who suffer. And yet, the definition of “mental illness” isn’t as scary as we might assume. When I went online to see what definitions I could come up with, this is what I found:

Mental illness:

1. Any of various psychiatric conditions, usually characterized by impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by physiological or psychosocial factors

2. Any of various disorders in which a person’s thoughts, emotions, or behavior are so abnormal as to cause suffering to himself, herself, or other people

3. Any of various psychiatric disorders or diseases, usually characterized by impairment of thought, mood, or behavior.

“Impairment of thought, mood, or behavior” that is “abnormal” to that particular person. This is what it means to be mentally ill.  To be depressed or anxious.  To have postpartum depression, postpartum OCD or postpartum PTSD.  And truthfully, although not every new mom will suffer with depression or anxiety after having a baby, it is pretty fair to say that nearly every mom will experience some impairment of thought, mood, or behavior when they suddenly enter motherhood.  With depletions in sleep, nutrition, and support this is almost inevitable to some degree.

But back to the impact of shame.  This is what I have seen in my work with moms:

The mom who waits for 10 months to call for support and is, at this point, stuck in a myriad of symptoms that are debilitating. 

The mom who is pulling out her hair (a condition known as Trichotillomania) but who, despite a close relationship with her husband, will not let him know how deeply she struggles.  

The mom who has tried everything to feel better — healthy nutrition, help at night so that she can sleep, childcare help so that she can take breaks and get exercise, reduced and more realistic expectations of herself as a mom — yet still suffers from extreme anxiety and depression but who will not try the medicine that is prescribed by her reproductive psychiatrist.  

The mom who desperately needs community and love and support but who hides from those who she cares about because she cannot bear the thought of them knowing that she is not okay.

I am telling you, shame gets in the way of recovery and wellness.

And truthfully, this is a job for each of us.  Every woman who has struggled with postpartum depression and who speaks openly about this begins that important job of reducing stigma.  Every partner who non-judgmentally supports a mother breaks this down just a little more.  Every blog post, every authentic media effort, every mental health awareness day helps the public learn more.  Every time a man or woman steps up and tells a story in an effort to inform, validate, and support, one more mother might gain the courage to step on Shame’s head.

Bam.

We need you.