Tag Archives: mental illness

The Truth About Postpartum Depression

16 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

I am also part of a Mental Health Month blog party that’s happening today.

When I landed in Canada almost twelve years ago, the news waves were buzzing with an unfolding tragedy. A young woman, caught in the grip of postpartum depression, had launched herself into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her weeks-old baby daughter. The baby had died instantly, while the mother hung on in hospital, never regaining consciousness, before she died several weeks later.

The public, including, I confess, myself, practically fell over themselves in their haste to judge this woman for killing an innocent child. Like many people, I was operating under the smug self-righteousness of someone who’s “never been there”. I didn’t have children at that time, therefore I had never experienced postpartum depression. Although I was very familiar with regular depression, and had frequently thought self-destructive thoughts, it had never stretched to me being at risk of hurting another person.

As much as people wanted to be judgmental, there was one particular element of this story that bothered me a great deal. The woman had sought help for postpartum depression and not received it. She had reached out, hoping someone would grab her hand and save her from drowning. In the aftermath of the tragedy, no-one was saying, “If only I had known,” but a number of people were saying, “If only I had helped.”

Back then, postpartum depression was not really taken seriously. People associated it with mothers who killed their children, mothers who were dubbed as “monsters”.

I got hit with a hefty dose of reality when postpartum depression settled over me like a heavy, oppressive blanket after the birth of my second child. I realized that I had been so wrong about this condition, and that its manifestations are as unique and varied as the individuals who suffer from it.

The media, being the media, tends to sensationalize tragedy, and tragedy resulting from postpartum depression is no exception. In the absence of other information, other sources of awareness, is it any wonder that the unknowing public would associate postpartum depression with the killing of babies? That’s what the media has taught society, and it’s not exactly a subject that the average person is going to go and Google.

Media treatment of postpartum depression, along with the resulting generalizations that people make about it, are largely responsible for the fact that many women are too ashamed and scared to seek the help they need. I myself did not seek help, and in fact I would never have been treated had my doctor not noticed that something was way off during a visit for a foot complaint.

There is a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness in general, and postpartum depression in particular takes a big hit of it. The women who fall victim to it are dealing with so much more than depression. They are also feeling intense guilt and the sense of being “abnormal”. I mean, you have this gorgeous new baby who is supposed be a source of great joy and immeasurable love, and the whole thing has turned into a pear-shaped nightmare. The moms also feel fear that is beyond words. They are terrified that during some moment of insanity, they will hurt their children. They want to die just to save their babies from being raised by terrible mothers.

I could quote numbers at you. I could tell you how many women suffer from postpartum depression in Canada, the United States, and internationally. But whatever numbers I gave you would be completely meaningless. They would not include the scores of women who do not seek help, receive a diagnosis, or get treated.

If I was in charge, postpartum depression information would be included in the education packages that are given to new mothers, whether they are having their first, second or tenth child. When the hospitals handed out their leaflets about breastfeeding and developmental milestones, they would also be handing out information sheets about postpartum depression, along with fridge magnets printed with the telephone number of a crisis line.

The new mother’s partner, or some other designated support person, would be educated on the signs of postpartum depression. They would be taught what warning signs to look for, and what to do if they saw them.

If I was in charge, mothers would be regularly screened for postpartum depression for up to two years following the births of their babies – because it can take that long to strike.

There would be public awareness campaigns. The media would devote more attention to postpartum depression as a genuine medical issue to be handled with caring and compassion. They would stop the practice of only giving this condition the time of day in the wake of tragedies.

In my perfect world, women are not blamed for having this debilitating and often life-threatening condition.

They are helped through their times of terrible darkness, and they emerge bright and beautiful, like butterflies from a cocoon, and they enjoy rich, fulfilling lives filled with the laughter of their children.

Advertisements

Mental Illness: Don’t Be Ashamed

3 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Today’s post is written in observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, which runs through May.

Several years ago, as I sat nursing my newborn baby, I watched a talk show in which Tom Cruise said something to the effect of post-partum depression not being a real condition. All these moms needed, he said, was to follow good exercise and nutrition plans, and they wouldn’t have a problem. He was convinced, he said, because he had done research.

The timing of this talk show, with its rantings by someone who by definition will never know what post-partum depression is like, could not have been worse. I was in the thick of post-partum depression myself at the time, and although my particular brand of it never included a desire to hurt my child, fantasies of my own death were a very real part of my life.

I did not seek help for my condition, and in fact I would never have been treated for it had my family doctor not noticed that something was amiss during a visit for something completely unrelated. I had a whole set of issues with that particular doctor, but I fully credit him for saving my life. That’s how close I was to the edge of the cliff.

The fact that I suffered from post-partum depression at all was no surprise to me. If anything, I had been surprised when it hadn’t struck after the birth of my first son.

Even as a teenager, I was prone to bouts of depression. My parents were not really aware of it, and on the few occasions when someone actually noticed that I was not OK, it was always put down to adolescent hormones.

“You’ll grow out of it,” people told me.

Except I didn’t. My depression continued into adulthood, coming in waves that sometimes threatened to drown me completely. It would hit completely without warning, hang around for weeks or months or even years, and then disappear just as suddenly.

During my teens I blamed hormones. For two decades after that, I blamed myself. I blamed the fact that some unwise choices I made during my college years led to trauma that had a lasting effect.

I didn’t seek help. Of course I didn’t. My depression and everything that went with it was my own fault, right? I didn’t deserve to be helped.

When it came down to it, the mental health issues that I have experienced throughout most of my life – be it post-partum depression, good old garden-variety depression, anxiety, and everything else – have been a source of shame to me.

And that, my friends, is a big problem in our society. Too many lives are destroyed and lost because people suffering from mental illnesses feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help. Feelings of unworthiness and self-blame act as barriers to the pursuit of inner peace and happiness.

Tom Cruise sitting on his high horse effectively blaming mothers for a debilitating and often life-threatening condition did not help the cause of the mental health community one little bit.

Eventually, just over a year ago, I finally made the very difficult decision to seek professional help. The road since then has not been smooth. With the guidance of my therapist, I am reliving past traumas and undergoing oft-uncomfortable introspection in search of the roots of the conditions that plague me. But I at least know that I am heading somewhere other than a dead end.

My quest for mental health is by far the hardest thing for me to write about.  Because in spite of the steps that I have taken to get help, I have not quite managed to shake the decades-old conviction that this is something for me to be ashamed and embarrassed about.

If I stay silent, though, I remain a part of the problem of the stigma associated with mental illness.

In starting to speak out, however tentatively, I hope to become a part of the solution.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/militaryhealth/3485865665/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

A Place To Stand

2 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 2 – Quotation Inspiration: Find a quote that inspires you (either positively or negatively) and free write about it for 15 minutes.

move the world2

Give me a place to stand and I can move the world. ~ Archimedes ~

While I was labouring with my first child, I channelled some of my pain by yelling out swear words about Ontario’s new premier, who had been appointed after the resignation of his predecessor. I did not have much interest in Canadian politics at the time: I had only been in the country for three years and I did not have the right to vote. Adjusting to living in a new country and being pregnant had pretty much taken up all of my energy.

I didn’t know anything about this man I was yelling obscenities about, except that he had this irritating whiny voice that made me wish my head would just explode.

At some later point, after Mr. Whiny Voice had been ousted from office, I asked someone how Toronto’s problem with homelessness had originated. The answer horrified me. Apparently, the former Ontario government – the one led by Whiny Voice’s predecessor – had cut funding to a lot of services, mental health care being one of them. As a result, patients with mental illness suddenly found themselves being ousted from programs that they could not afford to pay for themselves, and in the absence of homes or job prospects, they had ended up on the streets.

When I heard about this, I just wanted to cry for these people. I mean, is that any way to treat a human being? Stop their treatment and put them out in the street?

As an autism parent, I know all about the difficulties with funding. Governments do not have unlimited money, and increasing – or in some cases, merely maintaining services comes with raised taxes, and that never goes down well with the public.

I could offer up a thousand suggestions as to what could be cut instead of services that allow people to have basic dignity and quality of life, but this post is already in danger of being more political than I’m generally comfortable with.

Instead, I will say this: that every single person has a place in this world. No matter what challenges they face, no matter what their strengths and weaknesses are, and no matter what level of functioning they ultimately achieve, they are all rightful members of the communities in which they live, and they should be respected as such.

I often tell the story about the day we received George’s autism diagnosis. In the midst of the devastation that goes with this kind of thing, the doctor started talking about his prognosis for George’s future. He didn’t hold out much hope, and we left his office that day thinking that as an adult, George wouldn’t be able to do much more than sweep floors.

The reality has turned out to be very different, and although George is an eight-year-old with some profound challenges, he is also an eight-year-old with a great deal of intelligence and a ton of potential.

But that is not the point. The point is this: so what if George grows up to sweep floors or clean toilets? Can you imagine what the subway station or the airport or the shopping mall would be like if there was no-one to sweep the floors or clean the toilets?

Whether my son sweeps floors, becomes a computer programmer, works in a library, or wins the Nobel Peace Prize for revolutionizing heart transplant surgery, he has a place in the world.

It is my job to help him reach his full potential, whatever that may turn out to be.

It is up to me to help him find a place to stand so that he can move his world.

He already totally rocks mine.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sporst/6914330609/sizes/m/in/photostream/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

For Some People It’s Not So Funny

24 May

It’s almost too easy to make fun of Harold Camping. For the second time the world has, with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever, failed to come to an end despite his predictions. He was so sure of it this time. He said that “there is no possibility that it will not happen.”

Now, I am one of the most Biblically illiterate people around. I know some basics, of course, having been educated in a girls-only Catholic school that’s short on life training and high on guilt training. The Bible story that I know best is the one where Jesus turns water into wine, but I have a vested interest in that one.

As vague about the Bible that I am, even I know that there’s some passage in there somewhere that says the Rapture will pretty much sneak up on us without warning, and that even Jesus doesn’t know when it will happen.

Why Harold Camping thinks he knows something that Jesus doesn’t is beyond me. But anyway.

Now he is saying that his date was off by five months, and that the Rapture will actually happen on October 21st, the date that was originally supposed to be the earth-turning-into-great-ball-of-fire date.

What’s he going to say come October 22nd? That he had the year wrong?

I confess that in the last week or so, I have made much mockery of all of this. On Saturday I posted a Facebook status update suggesting that everyone fail to answer their phones after 6:00 p.m., just to mess with their friends. I posted links to post-Rapture animal rescue services, and I shared Rapture-related jokes. I tweeted about what I planned to wear to the Rapture, and pondered the question of whether I would still be able to go on Facebook when it was all over.

Not that I expected to go anywhere. With all of my skepticism and mockery, if the Rapture ever does happen, the most I’ll see of God is his middle finger.

As easy as it is to poke fun, though, there is a serious side to all of this.

There are people who really and truly believed Harold Camping’s prophecy. Some of them based their entire belief systems on the idea that they would be taken to Heaven on Saturday. Some non-believers might be tempted to dismiss these people as stupid, but that’s hardly fair. I would venture to say that many of them were vulnerable, and got caught up at a time in their life when they really needed something to believe in.

Can you imagine their disappointment when nothing happened? It must have been crushing for a number of Camping’s followers. They are now in a position where they are having to re-evaluate everything they believed in, and in some cases, cope with the onset of depression and anxiety. I think it would be a fair bet to say that there will be a sharp rise in mental illness among Camping’s followers, and that is so, so sad.

What about the people who spent their life savings in the belief that they would need the money after May 21st? Some of them are retired, and they no longer have the nest eggs that they had spent years working hard to put together for their old age.

What about the pregnant lady who gave up medical school, and who now faces life as a new Mom with her chosen career thrown away?

Harold Camping and his prophecy have cost many people a lot – both financially and spiritually.

What of Harold Camping himself? Is he an arrogant opportunist who knowingly deceived his followers, or did he truly believe what he was preaching? Is he deserving of sympathy or criticism?

(Photo credit: Kelly Beall)