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Postpartum depression is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as "a mood disorder that can affect women after childbirth," and approximately one in seven new mothers experience it to some degree. Common symptoms include mood swings, feeling overwhelmed, unexplained sadness and/or irritability, and sleep and appetite issues. If someone you love is experiencing PPD, here are five ways you can offer your support.
1. Be a good listener
It may sound obvious, but one of the best things you can do is to really listen. Many new mothers suffering from PPD experience extreme feelings of guilt, according to the Mayo Clinic, and this can lead to worsening depression. It's a nasty cycle, but having someone who doesn't judge or try to fix things can make a big difference. You may not even have to respond at all beyond saying, "I can see that this is really difficult for you, and I'm sorry you're dealing with this." Sometimes just having someone sitting beside you offering silent support can be a big help.
2. Provide validation
Avoid the temptation to point out all the wonderful things she has in her life and reasons why she should be happy. If she has a happy, healthy baby, she already knows this. Being reminded that she should be grateful and ecstatic about it when she isn't will just make the feelings of guilt and inadequacy worse. Even if you're right, it does no good to argue based on logic when the issue is how she feels. What she needs is for someone to acknowledge that her feelings are real and that what she is going through is hard.
3. Let her know she's not alone
PPD can be very isolating, and only in recent years has it started coming into the public conversation as more and more women tell their stories. If you have experience with PPD, share how you felt. If you know someone who has struggled with this issue, see if you can connect your friend with that person. Do the legwork to find a local PPD support group. Find documentaries online and watch them with her. Do anything you can do to show her that other women have had the same struggles and have managed to come out on the other side.
4. Help without waiting to be told how
When you're in the throes of PPD, it can be almost impossible to ask for help. The well-intentioned but overly vague, "Let me know if there's anything I can do" just doesn't cut it. If you have a close relationship with the mother, go ahead and help without waiting for her to give you a task. Have a pizza delivered for dinner, or stop by with some freezer-friendly meals in disposable pans. If you see dishes piled in the sink or dirty laundry overflowing the hamper when you're over for a visit, go ahead and take care of it.
5. Know when to step in
Unlike the baby blues, PPD usually doesn't go away quickly. For most, the symptoms will slowly go away and finally be entirely gone within a few months after giving birth. Others may continue to experience symptoms for two years. However, sometimes things just continue to get worse or start to escalate quickly. Here are a few warning signs that PPD is getting worse or that the mother is experiencing the rarer postpartum psychosis:
- Suicidal thoughts/actions.
- Invasive thoughts of hurting the baby.
- Manic episodes.
- Delusions centering around the baby, particularly religious ones.
If you notice any of these signs, you may need to step in and talk to your friend's partner or family members about taking steps toward getting professional help.