Mothers/Parents and Mental Health

This is a really important article from NPR that I shared on our Facebook page a few days ago. It talks about postpartum psychosis, which is when a new mother has a break from reality. This illness is rare, but not as uncommon as you would think, because most women are too afraid to talk about it. According to the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Women’s Mental Health, only 1 to 20 women per 1,000 will have this disorder. But here’s the thing: women are, consciously or subconsciously, held by society to be mothers. Women who fail at this in one way or another are judged harshly. Women whose mental health suffers and affects their children are dealing not only with the stigma of “bad mothering” but also with that of mental illness.

I am going to say this one time only: mental illness is just another kind of regular illness. The brain is just as much a body part as the pancreas, but one would never judge a mother with diabetes for needing to stop to adjust her insulin, or for needing insulin in the first place (well, at least we tend not to judge those with Type I diabetes – the stigma against fatness is a whole other blog post).

Sometimes our bodies fail us. It is simply a part of being a living creature; we are imperfect.

And I do not deny that mental illness is a challenging thing to deal with. Unlike many other physical ailments, it can affect personality and that is truly a hard thing for those who suffer with it as well as those around them.

But it doesn’t make the stigma any more valid.

Here is a fact for you: Most medications are tested on men. Women have very different bodies and very different neurology, particularly in regards to hormones. Thus, being a woman and needing medication of any kind, you are already at a disadvantage. To add in something as complex as postpartum psychosis which, as we already noted, is dealing with two stigmas, and to try to balance the body and mind with a medication that hasn’t been tested on women, especially postpartum women, is a problem. (Here is a video that talks a little bit about the gender gap in medication testing. The video itself is about pain, but it’s not irrelevant because we do know that the gut and the brain, as well as the immune system and the gut, are connected in ways we do not fully understand.)

And the stigma is built into the mental health system, too. For instance, in trying to find care for my daughter (it is okay with her for me to discuss this publicly), we were met again and again with limited care for mental health. There are clinics here who will only see a patient for 13 visits, with a second set of 13 visits possible if still necessary, but no more. This may be logical for a kid who is simply needing to learn some coping skills or needs help navigating difficult interpersonal connections. But for a kid with a true mental illness, it is simply not enough in any way, shape, or form. You’d never find a medical hospital with a 13-visit limit on any other kind of care. If a child goes through the expected number of chemo sessions and still needs medical help, they will get appropriate medical care. But this isn’t true of mental health care. The stigma is built into the system itself.

If you read that NPR article, you will see the difference between care models here in the US and those in the UK where babies are sometimes allowed to stay with mom. Here in the US, however, infants are not even allowed to visit and breast pumps are not readily available. This is a woman’s problem in that it affects women directly, but it is a social problem when we consider the time off work the woman’s partner will need to take, the childcare involved of the infant and/or older children. Something like this could make or break a family’s survival and here in the US where we don’t offer healthcare to everyone, health problems often do break families, forcing them into poverty and potential homelessness.

I am not over-exaggerating.

I’d also like to quickly note that, yes, police can be involved in mental health cases where it is not safe to transport a person yourself. If you need to call for care (at least here in San Diego – you will want to look up your own local information) you should ask for the PERT team (psychiatric emergency response team). They will handcuff the person while transporting them and, while this is often perceived as treating them like criminals, it is not the intention to do so. It is done for safety and probably policy reasons. Perhaps this is something we need to work towards changing – I’m down with that. But I’m sharing this right now primarily because I think this is important information for the general public to know – it’s certainly not something you want to be surprised by at your lowest moment, and it’s something that can be so easily misunderstood.

So, what do we do about this problem of mental health care, in particular as it pertains to women?

Well, first of all, we share the facts. Women are at a disadvantage when it comes to appropriate medical care. People struggling with mental health issues are at a disadvantage when it comes to appropriate access to services and care. Women struggling with mental health issues are dealing with this from every angle, and women of color or other oppressed groups are oppressed even more. So talk about this. Share the facts with your friends and family even if – especially if – they do not pertain directly to you. A voice outside the community can be a powerful ally.

Second, listen to your friends and family when they speak of their mental health issues. Do not tell them how to fix it, do not offer suggestions. Instead just tell them that you hear them. Offer to help them find services (here in San Diego the Access and Crisis Line is your first stop). Promise that you don’t judge them and that you love them. Remind them that this is just another illness like any other illness and the fact that it is happening in their head doesn’t make them any less worthy of help or love.

If – and only if – you are ready to share your own story of struggling with mental health, share it. The more people admit secrets, the more we find we are not alone – just like with our pictures of our bodies here, we can stand together and be stronger than we are alone. If you want to share your story here, you can do that here.

And if you are a mama or a parent who has struggled with mental health issues of any severity, I am here to tell you that you are not alone and that it does not make you a bad parent. You are worthy of love and life. It is scary sometimes to seek help, and I will admit that sometimes even mental health practitioners are terrible at understanding mental illness, but keep moving forward. Don’t allow yourself to believe anyone – professional or not – that mental health problems are something you should be ashamed of. It’s simply a thing that happened, just like any other challenge people face, no stigma necessary, no judgement at all. You are strong and worthy and beautiful just as you are. I see you and I hear you.

My Story and Photos (Anonymous)

Age: 26
# of children: 5

Hello, I have found this site so uplifting the last few days as I am struggling with my weight, again, after baby #5. I married the love of my life and my best friend when I was 18. We are getting ready to celebrate 8 beautiful, amazing, exciting, hard, wisdom-building years together! We had our first child when I was 20, a boy. After he was born I started having serious issues and was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis (another thing rarely ever talked about.) This was the most difficult time of my life. A time that’s supposed to be magical and beautiful and full of happiness, instead was marred by grief and confusion and pain. Only with the saving grace of my Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST did my family and I make it through this. And for the first time in my life I questioned my calling of motherhood. All I’d ever wanted was to marry the love of my life and have LOTS of babies, and after the time we had with the first I thought surely I’d gotten it wrong. Well, as usual, God laughed (in love, of course), and gave me another and another and another and another. And so, in the space of a little over 5 years, my husband and I were abundantly blessed with 5 beautiful sons! Yes, that’s right, all boys. No, none of them are twins. Yes they are all ours together. Yes, I know what causes that (and I like it ;)) And yes, we could have our own basketball team! (These are questions I’m asked and comments that are made every time we leave our house.) At first, I really hated all the staring we got, but eventually I realized our family was a rarity, and a badge of honor. I’m starting to see my fat and my stretch marks and my grey hairs and my cellulite as badges of honor too. If it weren’t for this body, none of my mini-men would be here. And if it weren’t for my mental war after #1, I wouldn’t be able to stand tall and say, ‘after that I can do anything.’ Every single person on this earth needs to know that there are much much worse things than being fat or ugly or too skinny or bony or soft or whatever has you down. I’d much rather be fat than mean or angry or selfish. The hardest person to love is yourself, but look at those beautiful babies YOU created and know that they don’t see what you see. Your littles see momma’s kisses, momma’s hugs, momma’s comfort, momma’s love. Your babies see you through God’s eyes, they do not care about your outside, just as God does not. What matters is your heart.

These are pictures of me at 2 months postpartum with baby #5. #4 and #5 were born 10 months apart. I now have 5 under 6

God Bless

Postpartum Psychosis Survivor (Pinay Mom NYC)

Hearing things that weren’t there was bad; keeping silent about it was worse.

For months after my daughter was born via C-section, I felt miserable and pathetic. I had been so independent prior to giving birth at 31; then I saw myself as this needy, ugly thing, financially dependent on a husband who was suffering through his own depression. I feared he didn’t love me. With my family 3000 miles away, I watched the laundry and dishes pile up. Worst of all, I heard things.

Not voices, per se, but laughter–a quiet, but biting mocking laughter that seemed to arise whenever I was tired, alone, and trying to breastfeed my baby. I also sensed a hand pressing down on top of my head, as if trying to break in through my skull. I’d scream, waking my baby and alerting my husband to something terribly wrong. Eventually, I told him. A neuroscientist by training, he was familiar with what was happening to me and assured me that I wasn’t “crazy.” I did some internet research and found that I was experiencing post-partum psychosis. Well, great, I thought. Now let me get back to adjusting to motherhood, thank you very much.

Only the adjustment to this new role, this new body–this new life–still shook the very core of my sanity. And I kept trudging through, silently. I loved my daughter. I hated my life.

When she was 10 months old, I tried to kill myself using the unused painkiller meds prescribed for me after my C-section. A fight with my husband triggered off what I had been quietly plotting to do for months. I swallowed four pills before he wrested the remaining meds out of my hand and flushed them down the toilet. We talked throughout the night. I decided to seek professional help. I decided to live.

Searching for a care-provider that took my insurance was humiliating. The bureaucratic run-around and telephone-tag belittled my condition, making me feel even more guilt and shame for my experience. Did no one realize that post-partum depression with psychosis required immediate medical attention? I went to the one place that could definitely spot a life-threatening condition when they saw one. I checked into the ER with a simple note: I am going to kill myself. That was the beginning.

It’s been 9 months since I voluntarily committed myself for a three-day stay as a psychiatric patient in the very same hospital in which I had given birth. 9 months of reflecting, re-prioritzing, and cleaning-up. 9 months of getting to know my daughter and getting re-acquainted with my husband and myself. The last 40 weeks haven’t always been easy. But they’ve helped me to acknowledge and accept my husband’s love, and to nurture my family, my career and my needs–no matter how difficult. I love my daughter. I love my life.

I urge everyone out there to question why the physical and psychological toll of motherhood should bring about so much shame, so much silence. It needn’t be this way. Stigma and silencing are often just symptoms of ignorance. Most people don’t recognize that we mothers can love and adore our children and still feel intense pain transitioning into our new lives. Transition can be brutal. But what hurt me and my family more was keeping quiet about it until it was almost too late. Who benefits from maintaining the stigma–the ignorance–around post-partum psychosis? What false ideas of motherhood does this stigma uphold? If people took seriously the personal and medical havoc brought on by motherhood, imagine how we might change maternity policies, healthcare, career-planning—our idea of womanhood, itself.

My daughter is napping in my arms as I write this. Soon she will wake, and the silence will be over. I can only hope.

Thank you for reading.

pic 1: Me a couple months before my 30th birthday, and about 8 months before getting pregnant.
pic 2: A week before giving birth.
pic 3: I took-up pole-dancing as a way to reclaim my body. Here I am attempting a (flawed) outside leg-hook, 15 months post-partum.
pic 4: My little monkey!

~Age: 32
~Number of pregnancies and births: 3 pregnancies, 1 birth
~The age of your children, or how far postpartum you are: 1 daughter, 19 months