When Jennifer Hanslip found out she was pregnant with her first baby, she was thrilled. “I’ve never been that happy,” Hanslip told HuffPost Canada over the phone from her home in Winnipeg.
That’s why when her daughter was born, she didn’t expect to feel so ambivalent towards her. She didn’t have any thoughts of hurting her baby, she just didn’t want anything to do with her.
Hanslip found breastfeeding stressful. She lost blood during the birth, and continued to feel physically weak during the first month. She couldn’t stop crying. She fantasized about having her baby adopted or running away. Two weeks after her daughter was born, Hanslip was having elaborate fantasies about killing herself. She had even started forming a suicide plan.
Her husband and her mother were increasingly alarmed by her behaviour. They arranged for a nurse to come to the house, who immediately brought her in to the emergency room.
Hanslip was prescribed medication and started talking to a psychiatrist. What she now recognizes was postpartum depression eventually subsided after a few months in counselling. The most important thing she retained from those sessions, she said, was the ability to think of herself as a priority. The psychiatrist helped her understand that being a mom didn’t need to take over her whole identity — she was still the same person, just with a child.
She went on to have two more children. She felt equipped to deal with PPD symptoms if they did come up again, but she didn’t experience any depression or anxiety those subsequent times. She’s now a Manitoba volunteer coordinator for Postpartum Support International, helping other new moms going through similar experiences.
Hanslip said she can’t even picture what it would be like to experience something as painful and isolating as PPD now, during a global pandemic, when anxiety levels are already sky-high and support is harder to access.
“I can’t even imagine the feeling of having all these ideas of what maternity leave was going to be like, and how you were going to be spending your time, and it’s just out the window,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”
A heartwrenchingly difficult situation made even harder
Almost a quarter of mothers in Canada experience symptoms of either postpartum depression or anxiety. It can be hard to ask for help, even at the best of times, because there’s so much stigma attached to not feeling elated about a new baby. And during a pandemic, when people are forced to stay home, doctors’ offices are packed with COVID-19 patients, and healthcare professionals don’t always have the chance to pick up on red flags, help can seem even further away.
There’s no single cause for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. But the change in hormone levels is thought to be a part of it. There’s a dramatic drop in estrogen and progesterone in the body after giving birth, which can lead to fatigue and feelings of sadness.
That said, the biggest predictors of postpartum depression are a lack of support and of opportunities to spend time with other people, “which is exactly what we are imposing on people right now,” said Nicole Letourneau, a nursing professor at the University of Calgary and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Research Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health.
Typically, new parents experiencing PPD are encouraged to leave their house, see their friends, visit a therapist. None of that is possible at a time when people are being asked to stay at home.
And the pandemic is piling extra stress onto new parents.
“It’s a huge time of worry,” psychologist and professor Gina Wong, the director of Maternal Mental Health Progress in Canada, told HuffPost. She’s also a volunteer with Postpartum Support International, which puts her in direct contact with people experiencing postpartum depression in the Edmonton area. “There’s no other time, ever in our lifetime, like this pandemic.”
“The biggest predictors of postpartum depression are lack of support and socialization, which is exactly what we are imposing on people right now”
At a time when there’s less support available, there’s a lot more pressure on new parents, who can’t have visits with family or friends. And if they have older children in addition to a baby, they’re also in charge of teaching and entertaining those children.
“We have mothers under so much more pressured — they’ve got to be the substitute teacher because we’re living at home 24/7. Everything is amplified in the home,” Wong said. “It’s a high time of risk for mental health and coping.”
New moms with underlying conditions like depression and anxiety are especially vulnerable, and even people who haven’t suffered from any mental health issues before, might develop them in the wake of our current fear and general uncertainty, Wong said.
“The COVID situation, with the isolation and just the overall shift, and the change and the loss of everything that we know, has instilled a greater level of mental health issues in general in Canada.”
Red flags and symptoms for postpartum mood and anxiety disorders
There are certain criteria that put some people at higher risk of experiencing PPD than others. If any of these apply to you, make sure to monitor your own feelings and behaviour. And if you have new parents in your life, remember that PPD can even affect people who don’t have any of these risk factors.
- Young mothers. Mothers under 25 are more likely than the general population to report feelings of PPD, according to Statistics Canada.
- Mothers with mood disorders. People who have already suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or other mood disorders are more prone to postpartum depression.
- You had a difficult birth, or your baby has health problems. Giving birth to a baby is a long and a painful process, and one that most parents have been picturing throughout the whole pregnancy. If it doesn’t go according to plan, if the baby is born with health problems, or if the birth is traumatic in some other way, that can have a lasting impact.
- Ambivalence about the pregnancy. Pregnancies that were unplanned or unwanted can lead to difficult and conflicting feelings in both parents.
- Problems in your relationship. Moms who feel like they’re bringing a child into a less-than-perfect family are also at a higher risk of developing depression or anxiety.
- Non-birth partner’s depression. Dads or other parents who haven’t given birth can experience a form of PPD, too. And when that happens, the birth partner is at a greater risk of developing it herself, Wong explained. “Wherever it started, the other person’s at a greater risk.”
- Limited social support. Not having people to talk to or rely on makes things much, much worse.
These are the symptoms of PPD to look out for.
- “I just don’t feel like myself.” This is a really common sentiment among people experiencing PPD, Wong said.
- Sleep issues. Obviously, most parents sleep less with a new baby. But if sleep issues persist — if a mom is experiencing insomnia, or is sleeping a lot — that’s cause for concern. “When a mom isn’t able to sleep, I get really concerned as a psychologist,” Wong said. “Sleep is like water.”
- Either hyperactivity or lethargy.
- Difficulty bonding with the baby.
- Withdrawing from other people.
- Intense self-criticism.
- Trouble functioning for more than two weeks. Finding it difficult to do everything you need to do in a day isn’t unheard of for new parents. But if you feel that way every day, and it doesn’t stop, there might be a bigger problem.
- Intrusive or scary thoughts
- Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby. If this is happening to you, Letourneau said, it’s important to take action immediately. Call your doctor, a nurse practitioner, or your province’s teleheatlh line. If you can’t get through, go to the emergency room. “We never, ever want to let those kind of scary thoughts go unaddressed.”
What to do
If you have a partner, lean on them. Often, having a new baby means lots of visits from family and friends. It’s hard not to have that — but most newborn babies do have two parents. “Hopefully, you’re isolated with a partner or loved one who can help,” Letourneau said. “That mom needs to rely on that partner or loved one to help her as much as possible.”
Connect with doctors online or over the phone — or, if need be, in person. It’s normal to be afraid to go to a hospital during a pandemic, but it might be the right call. Phone your family doctor or your province’s telehealth line to explain your situation and ask what they recommend.
Reach out to friends and family, especially other moms, and especially other moms who have gone through what you’re going through. PPD makes a lot of people feel like they shouldn’t share their feelings. But sharing your difficult experience with people you trust can bring huge relief.
If you know other parents who experienced PPD, it can be really helpful to get in touch with them. You can also put a call out in a parenting group on Facebook, or get in touch with a volunteer from Postpartum Support International.
It’s really worth seeking out that shared experience, Letourneau emphasized: a study that she worked on found that speaking to a mother who had recovered from postpartum depression can make a really big difference in a new mom’s recovery.
“It doesn’t have to be a psychologist with 10 years of education,” she said. “It can be just other mothers who have been through it — so many moms go through this.”
Look for virtual supports. The good news is that there’s a ton of help online. There are many PPD Facebook groups, and a lot of additional resources at the links below.
Most therapists have switched to phone or video sessions. It’s obviously less ideal than meeting a therapist in person, but a virtual chat with a mental health professional can be really helpful. “Counselling over the phone, really can help moms with depression,” Letourneau said.
And Wong added that it’s also worth remembering that virtual support is actually easier to access. Rather than fitting an in-person appointment into a likely already busy day, parents can more easily schedule a phone call from their own home, without having to find a babysitter or make other arrangements.
Limit social media. Although virtual supports are a big benefit, Hanslip said it’s important to remember how damaging social media can sometimes be. New moms are often prone to comparing themselves to other people, particularly the mommy accounts that make parenting look glamorous and easy. If you recognize that that can be hard for you, set time limits for yourself, or choose to avoid Instagram completely.
If you have the means, consider a postpartum doula. A doula wouldn’t be able to visit you at home at this time, in the way they normally would. But you have the option to connect online with someone who can walk you through the postpartum process, and walk you through any questions you have.
Remember to meet your own needs. We all need sleep, nutrition, and some form of exercise to be able to move through the world. Obviously, new moms aren’t going to be preparing elaborate meals or running marathons, but eating fruits and vegetables and going for a walk can make a really big difference
“It’s not a selfish thing to do,” Hanslip said. “It’s a necessary thing to do.”
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Parenting, under normal circumstances, is demanding. Parenting during a global pandemic is something no one alive today has ever had to do, and something no one really has a clear idea of how to do properly.
Do the best that you can do under what are extremely difficult circumstances. No one is going to be able to look after a newborn and treat their own mental health issues in a perfect or ideal way, especially since most new parents also have other commitments, like work or budgeting or looking after other kids.
“If putting on a screen is going to give you a few minutes of
sanity, then I say go for it,” Hanslip said. “It’s not the end of the world.”
Postpartum Support International. The group offers a lot of online resources. The Canada-specific part of the organization also lists volunteer coordinators, like Wong and Hanslip, who live all over the country. If you call, email or in some cases even text a volunteer in your area, they can connect you with online support, offer suggestions for psychologists or counsellors to talk to at a variety of price points, and inform you about what kind of resources are available in your province. They’re friendly, helpful, and used to all of the feelings and impulses that are really scary to you. They also hold weekly group phone sessions with a mental health professional. Get more information and see the schedule here.
One of Hanslip’s most important pieces of advice is to remember that postpartum depression is a temporary state. Help is available, and people regularly recover from it.
When it’s happening, “it feels like it’s gonna last forever,” she said. “But know that while it’s certainly difficult now, it is going to end. Things are going to get better.”
For her, recovery started when her daughter left the newborn stage, and started to smile and react and show off her personality. For some parents, it happens much later. But that will eventually happen.
And that’s true of the pandemic, too: as difficult as it is right now, we will eventually see the other side of this.
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