Perhaps you were quick to cry when extremely frustrated by your responsibilities. Maybe the idea of being separated from your child bothered you so much, that you weren’t comfortable leaving them in the care of even family for just an hour or two. You possibly had some scary thoughts about harming yourself or your baby that you weren’t comfortable telling anyone about.
Those are just a few of a number of symptoms of postpartum depression that many women, one in eight actually, suffer with after giving birth. Studies have found Black women can be twice as likely to experience symptoms of postpartum than their white counterparts. Despite that, it’s been reported that Black mothers are much less likely to receive treatment, and that could be linked to feelings of shame or guilt for having the intense range of feelings new moms can have. It could also be connected to concerns over what may occur when one asks for help (how a new mom may be treated when attempting to seek care, worries over their child being taken from them even temporarily), which can push many Black mothers to keep quiet about what they’re going through. However, opting to stay quiet could be compounding the suffering.
For Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17), we spoke with licensed professional counselor Deema Soufan about how deep postpartum depression really goes and how long it actually can last. She recently took part in a conversation as part of Tommee Tippee‘s new multi-episode series, Spill The Milk, airing on Facebook Live, which is a resource for new moms looking to learn more about the “raw realities” of parenthood. Her particular episode focused on the fourth trimester, which is the vulnerable first three months after a woman births a baby. It can be a time of confusing emotions for moms.
“The fact that you birthed this baby, you should feel euphoric and this immediate bond. And for some, they do and for some they don’t, but many do not speak out if they’re experiencing it,” Soufan says.
Also not often acknowledged is that a baby is going through changes that further impact the mom, and we’re not just talking about sleep deprivation. The desire to be held often, if not constantly, and feel the comfort they experienced within the womb can take a lot out of a new parent.
“Mom also parallels that process, which can feel like a lot wondering, ‘I don’t know what to give this newborn.’ I don’t know what else I can give.'”
And while there are some commonly known symptoms of postpartum depression, from difficulty bonding with your baby to crying often, Soufan also notes the prevalence of lesser-known indicators, including racing thoughts, scary thoughts, the inability to fall asleep when the baby sleeps, intense feelings of rage, and even the inability to leave your baby due to anxiety. These symptoms can occur often in the weeks and few months after pregnancy, but according to Soufan, they can actually continue for up to 24 months if not years when left unaddressed, peaking around months nine through 12.
“It always catches moms by surprise because they feel like they should be feeling so much better at this point,” she says. “They’ll have a lot of shame and guilt and won’t speak up because they’re like, ‘I’ve been doing this for a while. I know the drill. Why do I feel this way?’ When actually we know to expect that symptoms will actually peak at this point.'”
She says that new moms shouldn’t wait until their PPD peaks and becomes too difficult to manage to seek treatment, but she’s well aware that when it comes to obtaining help, Black women’s experiences in healthcare, including in regards to services for mental health, aren’t the best. That can become one barrier to Black moms when dealing with postpartum depression.
“People don’t have access to resources, or the resources they do have access to are not good or no one has heard them out,” she says. “The pediatrician is there for the baby. They’re not there for the mom. So who the hell is there for the mom?”
She adds, “The way that things have gone for years, especially with the gaslighting of [Black women] being made to feel like, ‘Well is this in my head or am I really being treated like that?’ All it does is cause you to internalize everything and feel that rage and resentment and not know where to put it. Time and time again they’ve learned, ‘When I reached out for help, I’ve fallen short, so I’m done asking.'”
And what exactly does “help” look like? That’s certainly another concern. Would true care be some therapy? Or could it escalate to needing hospitalization and being separated from your child? That is a question many ponder when in the grips of despair.
“First, it’s finding a provider that you trust to reach out to and then getting in contact with resources that make sense for you, like seeing a therapist of color,” she says.
In severe cases, a mom may need to be hospitalized, but often, treatment looks like medication adjustments and outpatient therapy.
“The one good thing that’s come of the pandemic is its forced insurances’ hand in accepting telehealth. A lot of moms now have access to telehealth from home, or therapy from home, where you can breastfeed and do what you have to and not worry about ‘I have to leave my child,'” she says.
Being able to be treated for postpartum is critical for Black mothers who may have felt that after not receiving the proper support from loved ones and professionals, it was something they could handle on their own. Soufan says that you don’t have to go it alone, nor do you have to sit back and hope that you won’t be affected by postpartum depression as you near your due date. There are societal factors that can put you at risk for it, including having been a victim of sexual assault, a lack of family support, and socioeconomic status that could lead to more stress. She says you can prepare yourself. Know the signs and symptoms, and look into resources ahead of time so you’re not scrambling after your baby is here. Therapy for Black Girls, Health in Her HUE, BlackDoulas.org and more are great options of support and be sure to look into Black medical providers and therapists in advance. The sooner you can find your resources, and find ones specifically that will better be able to relate to and treat you, the better off you will be in the long run to cut short postpartum depression.
“Arm yourself with people who understand your journey and who will empower you,” Soufan says. “Remove that layer and work with people who will understand your journey and who will rally and ride for you.”