Postpartum Mental Illness: A Family Affair

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While society is guilty of romanticizing the arrival of a baby, those of us who have recently had newborns in our lives are intimately aware of the not-so-romantic realities of endless laundry; sleepless nights; shower-less days and so on. While many families are blessed with relatively stable mental health during the transition to parenthood, there are many families who have mental illnesses (post partum depression, anxiety, psychosis) to contend with during the postpartum period. For these families projectile spit-up and laundry piles are enviable problems in the context of their suffering with insomnia, suicidal thoughts, violent visions, appetite loss, feelings of worthlessness, difficulty bonding with their babies, loss of confidence, and a lack of will to face the challenges of the next day. Left undetected and untreated, postpartum mental illnesses are the source of significant suffering for new moms and their families.

postpartum-depression-familyIn the book, Beliefs and Illness: A Model for Healing, Drs. Wright and Bell highlight the impact that individual illnesses have on all family members. When a woman experiences postpartum illness all family members are impacted by the illness. As postpartum mental illness absconds with a mother’s confidence, clarity of thought, energy, and many other health-essentials, each family member endures distress. Unfortunately, the stigma that continues to plague the treatment of mental illness sometimes impedes a family’s efforts to heal. Due to the shame that has historically been associated with mental illness, mothers with these illnesses may experience profound guilt about being unwell at the very time when society expects them to be basking in the delight of their newborns.

While great strides have been made in the practice of raising awareness of postpartum depression, many strides remain to be made in the arena of raising the awareness of the impact of postpartum mental illness on family relationships and overall family well-being. Here are some beginning ideas for moving forward in an effort to nurture all family members impacted by postpartum mental illness:

  • Wight and Bell speak to the necessity of drawing a distinction between illness and the ill person. Mental illness can tempt us into seeing the ill person and the illness as one and the same. They are not. Acknowledge that the illness and the ill person are separate. Talk about the mental illness as ‘the illness’ or ‘the depression.’ With this distinction between person and illness made clear, more open conversation about the impact of illness on the entire family may occur with less blame, shame, and guilt.
  • Offer help to families who are suffering with postpartum mental illness (meals, childcare, house-cleaning, grocery shopping). There should be no need for a family to be self-sufficient when there is a newborn to care for and a mental illness to heal. Families live within communities so that we can help each other. While this ideal has perhaps gone astray in the era of individualism, it is one that we must reawaken if we are to lessen the suffering caused by these illnesses.
  • Families experiencing postpartum mental illness must focus only on the most basic of needs. Nourishment, rest, and relaxation are essential to healing. Housecleaning is not!
  • Seek professional mental health care that that is family-focused to ensure that family relationships and newborn development receive adequate attention through the process of healing.

There is an indisputable link that exists between family relationships, health, and illness. Thus, supporting family relationships through the experience of postpartum mental illness is nothing less than a moral social responsibility that we all share.

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