Women who have experienced postpartum depression and anxiety have described the experience as isolating and full of guilt. Karen Kleiman wants to change that.
Kleiman is a licensed clinical social worker, author of many books on postpartum mental health, and founder and director of The Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. In October, the center launched the #speakthesecret campaign, which focuses on “shattering the myth that all new mothers feel wonderful about being mothers.”
As part of the campaign, Kleiman teamed up with illustrator Molly McIntyre to create comics that depict the silent struggle of postpartum distress. She said she asked McIntyre to illustrate “the words that postpartum women are not speaking.”
The campaign also encourages women to put their own words “to their scary, negative thoughts and post them as a brave and honest expression of their unsettling experience,” Kleiman told HuffPost.
She said the campaign has been effective, based on the feedback she’s received. “Some women tell us they have never before uttered these words,” she said. “Or, that this thought they are having is so scary to write down, but they felt better after doing so!”
The goal of the comics is to help reduce the stigma around postpartum depression and anxiety and transmit useful information about these experiences through relatable characters. Kleiman, who has been working closely with postpartum women for nearly 30 years, said there’s still much to be done to address the issue.
“Despite an increase in public awareness and recent attention to postpartum depression, women continue to be silenced by the taboo against expressing negative feelings and thoughts about being a mother,” she said.
“There are many reasons why women don’t reveal how bad they might be feeling or the thoughts they might be having,” she said. “Some women fear judgment from others, or they judge themselves as bad mothers, or they consider it a weakness or something terrible is wrong with them. Some women worry that if they disclose how they feel, they will be deemed an unfit mother, or worst of all, and their baby will be taken away from them!”
Kleiman stressed the need for greater awareness around postpartum anxiety, not just postpartum depression. “In general, anxiety is a natural response to triggers or changes that worry or threaten us,” she said. “If a woman is vulnerable to anxiety ― biologically, genetically, psychologically ― she will be more at risk to experience scary thoughts.”
Although it’s normal to feel anxiety during the postpartum period, Kleiman said many new mothers are unsure of how much anxiety is OK and how to recognize the signs of a bigger problem.
“A general rule of thumb is that if the anxiety interferes with her ability to get through the day, that’s too much anxiety,” she said. “If levels of distress impede her functioning, she should let a health care provider know how she is feeling. Women need to feel safe to discuss how they are feeling, and we find that when they do so, their anxiety and guilt associated with these thoughts actually decreases, enabling them to feel better.”
Kleiman said she’s happy to see McIntyre’s comics aiding in this effort. “The response to the illustrations has been phenomenal,” she said. “Women are relating to the characters and expressing relief to find their own unspoken thoughts printed in plain view. They tell us they finally feel understood, supported, and validated.”
Reducing the silence and shame around postpartum stress is crucial, as isolation can intensify the negative emotions women experience and put them at risk for more prolonged symptoms, she said.
She and McIntyre want to turn the comics into a book filled with more illustrations, along with text about postpartum issues, helpful interventions and words of support.
“My hope is that postpartum women who can relate to these illustrations, find the courage to seek out a safe person with whom they can disclose their anxious thoughts so they can begin to feel better and not torture themselves further with the pain and shame that can accompany scary thoughts,” she said.