10 Ways to Support Someone Struggling with Maternal Mental Health

How you can make a difference supporting maternal mental health

Between sleep deprivation, hormonal surges, and the general stressors of life with a newborn, there are a lot of things working against new parents when it comes to mental health. Layer on a global pandemic and, well, it’s not so hard to see how we’ve found ourselves in the midst of a full-blown maternal mental health crisis.

According to Mental Health America, 1 in 5 women will suffer from Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) following the birth of a baby. The National Partnership for Women and Families has a comprehensive overview of recent studies related to the maternal mental health crisis, and the impact that it’s having on BIPOC families. Studies have shown that BIPOC mothers experience PMAD rates closer to 38% (nearly twice that of their white counterparts). That’s a ton of people, and quite frankly, those are just the folks who have actually been diagnosed. Despite being a very common experience, many folks still don’t feel comfortable talking about negative emotions surrounding the birth of their baby, and will often downplay their answers to screening questions (if they’re even screened in the first place).

So, it’s clear that this can be a tricky time. But, how exactly are you supposed to know if someone you love is struggling with PMADs? And what can we do about it?

Postpartum Support International lists the following as potential red flags to keep an eye out for:

  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Feeling more irritable or angry with those around you
  • Difficulty bonding with your baby
  • Feeling panicky or anxious
  • Having trouble eating or sleeping
  • Having upsetting thoughts that you can’t get out of your head
  • Feeling “out of control” or as though you’re “going crazy”
  • Questioning your decision to become a parent
  • Worried that you might hurt yourself or your baby

These are, of course, just some of the signs that a person could be struggling, so listen to your gut if something feels “off”. The good news is that a little support can go a very long way. Here are some of our favorite ways to nurture someone coping with PMADs:

  1. Check-in. Often.
    They might not have the capacity to respond, but regular texts and calls can go a long way to help mitigate feelings of isolation for someone coping with anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders. Even a quick: “thinking about you today, and here for you” can feel like sunshine to the person on the other end of the phone.
  2. Listen and believe.
    If someone is opening up to you and sharing about a struggle that they’re going though, listen to them (and more importantly, believe them). Even two people in the same household can have wildly different experiences, so take their story seriously.
  3. Lighten their load.
    When a new parent is coping with mental health disorders on top of a new baby, even simple tasks can feel completely overwhelming. Asking someone “what can I do to help” passes that burden onto the person who is already overwhelmed. To truly lighten their load, offer up options and let them choose: “Would it be more helpful if I start with dinner or laundry?”
  4. Help them rest.
    Sleep deprivation can rapidly exacerbate mental health struggles, so work together to make their sleep a priority. This can be especially hard to recognize when someone is dealing with “high-functioning anxiety.” On the outside, they might seem like they have it all together, but on the inside, they could be brimming with anxiety and fear, making it difficult to sleep when they do get the chance. If they are complaining that they can’t sleep, encourage them to simply rest by watching a show or listening to a podcast. Taking shifts at night, or taking the baby for a couple of hours so they can rest during the day can be a game-changer for an exhausted parent.
  5. Make a plan for physical pain.
    There is a direct link between physical pain and mental health, and we all know that birthing a baby can wreck havoc on your body. Between c-section incisions, episiotomies, and engorgement/pain caused by breast/chest feeding, birthing bodies usually need some extra love as they recover. Lining up lactation consultants and pelvic floor therapists can be tremendously helpful to ensure you’re getting the expert support that you need (bonus points if you get this support team lined up before baby arrives!)
  6. Nourish the mind, body, and spirit.
    Often, when supporting someone after they’ve birthed a baby, the emphasis gets placed on nourishing their physical bodies. But their mind and spirit have also been through a lot and need nourishing, too. Picking a good audiobook, podcast or light-hearted series can give the mind something to look forward to during those marathon cluster-feeding sessions. Feeling isolated? Help connect them with a new parent group to provide a sense of belonging and connection and shared wisdom (i.e. their village).  Whether that be a in-person or virtual (like the Peanut app), community is important.
  7. Encourage exercise (preferably outdoors).
    Assuming a birthing person has the green light from their health care provider, gentle exercise can help stabilize hormones and move nervous energy along. When tensions are high, encourage the person you’re caring for to go for a walk outdoors — even just for a few minutes. The fresh air and daylight can work wonders at calming frazzled nerves (this trick applies to adults and babies, alike).If they’re still recovering and can’t manage a walk, even just sitting outside for a bit can feel like medicine.
  8. Get the vibe right.
    Just because you’re spending a lot of time at home, doesn’t mean it has to feel like an actual cave. Open up the blinds (and windows if it’s warm enough), put on some music, and bring plants or fresh flowers into your space. Those small gestures can be big mood boosters.
  9. Normalize and validate.
    You can’t validate a new parent too much. It’s such hard work. Recognize everything that they’re doing, and reassure them that they’re not alone in their struggles. This often requires resisting the temptation to try and “fix” them or their situation. The expression “do you want comfort or solutions” can be a good one when navigating what someone actually wants out of their support person during any given moment.
  10. Last, but definitely not least: get them some professional support.
    If signs of depression, anxiety or mood disorders go beyond two weeks, it could be time to seek professional help. Finding a new provider can be a huge barrier, so if your person expresses interest in talking with a therapist or other health provider and they don’t already have someone lined up, you can help by taking on the labor associated with finding a provider who accepts their insurance and is taking new clients. (The Psychology Today “Find a Therapist” database is a great starting place.)

Supporting someone experiencing PMADs can feel complicated, but rest assured that there are many wonderful resources out there that can really help you both along this journey. We’ll leave you with a few of our favorites, but don’t hesitate to reach out if you need additional suggestions or support!

Essie Neeway profile picture

Libby Mukhi

Founder & Doula @ Heartswell Doula

Certified Postpartum Doula and Coach supporting birthing people and their families. She can be found at: www.heartswelldoula.com, or @heartswell.postpartum on Instagram.