Five years ago, I curled up on my living room sofa and prayed for my life to be different. “You are not broken,” I repeated over and over to myself, my hands clasped around my stomach. “You are healing.” But it didn’t feel like I would ever be whole again. My birth plan had been obliterated by a grueling 36-hour labor and emergency C-section, followed by a barrage of health disasters that erupted into my life—blood loss, preeclampsia, low milk supply, thrush, extreme weight loss, and the worst of them all: a large blood clot in my uterus that my worried doctors couldn’t explain.
Those experiences took a toll on more than just my physical health. I felt numb and angry and somehow guilty for what had happened to me. And I grieved—for the beautiful birthing experience I had dreamed of, for the connection I had wanted to have with my baby that was clouded by my anxiety, and for the happy experiences of being a new mom that I felt had been taken from me.
On one particularly hard day when the world felt like more than I could handle, I stared into my baby’s midnight blue eyes and saw myself—exhausted, muted, incomprehensibly sad—reflected in them. So I researched “postpartum depression” through my tears and reached out to a coordinator with Postpartum Support International (PSI).
Maternal mental health disorders are common—and rising
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (known as PMADs) are the number one complication of childbirth. They are a group of mood disorders that negatively impact the mental health of pregnant and postpartum birthing persons, plus their partners, and include perinatal anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychosis.
PMADs affect at least 14 percent of all women—an experience that ripples out into the family, as up to 50 percent of all partners of mothers with PPD suffer from the disorder as well. And these statistics only speak to the parents who have reached out, not the many others who are suffering in silence. They also do not speak to prevalence rates for LGBTQ+ and trans parents, which are higher than cis-parents and have not been fully researched.
While these overwhelming feelings are already challenging in and of themselves, they have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced parents indoors and away from crucial support systems.
“All women in the reproductive years were affected, but in different ways,” says Meeka Centimano, LSCSW, clinical director of Centimano Counseling in Mission, Kansas. “The chronic stress and isolation of the last 2-3 years has had a major impact on parents transitioning to parenthood. That said, we will not know the long-term impacts for a long time. We’re still surviving it.”
This might mean navigating new or heightened social anxiety (for parents and/or kids), isolation, less stable support, strained relationships, anxiety about health and illnesses, and more. What’s certain is that PMADs are affecting more parents than ever before. In fact, according to The Motherhood Center, since the beginning of the pandemic, over 70 percent of all new mothers and birthing persons experience PMADs.
Addressing maternal mental health concerns, now and in the future
Supporting and improving mental health for parents is not only crucial for day-to-day functioning, but can also be a lifesaving intervention. In Missouri, mental health conditions are the top underlying cause of pregnancy-related deaths. This is a hard reality to swallow, especially considering that, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in 2022, “all pregnancy-related deaths due to mental health conditions were determined to be preventable.”
So what can be done? A recent Kansas City Star article outlines four large-scale solutions for this crisis: expand Medicaid to 12 months postpartum; fund and cover doulas and community health workers; train medical providers to listen to all parents, especially parents of color (whom are at least 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women); and “offer more and better mental health care, so mothers have the wherewithal to take care of themselves and their children.”
It’s time we take care of the parents in our community. Parental mental health is not something that is often discussed even among close friends, but it should be—especially in May, which includes World Maternal Mental Health Day and Mother’s Day, and has been proclaimed to be Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month in Kansas City by Mayor Quinton Lucas.
After I reached out to PSI, I was connected with a local therapist who was able to help me understand and process my feelings. I finally had an outlet to share some of my most vulnerable thoughts in a non-judgmental, comforting space, and I acquired the tools that eventually helped me manage my anxiety and depression.
What can moms do to feel better?
For women who are feeling isolated, Courtney Williams, PSI Climb Out of the Darkness Creative Strategist, suggests reaching out—even in small ways. “There are ways to stay connected. Start by calling a friend or family member for regular coffee chats or just to share a moment in silence together. There are various organizations within the birthing community offering supports and/or trainings for concerns such as lactation, sleep issues, pelvic floor exercises and more.”
Another way to get connected is through larger events dedicated to parental mental health, where you can meet other parents and build community. “This summer, Kansas City is launching its first Climb Out of the Darkness parent gathering,” Courtney says. “It’s a day for ALL parents to meetup, find local support and have fun with their kids. The hope is to connect families with safe spaces throughout the community where they are held, seen and supported.”
But if your feelings seem overwhelming or you don’t feel like yourself, reach out to your doctor—or find one who can best support you. “I always ask women, ‘Have you talked to anybody about your concerns?’” Meeka explains. “We do want to make sure that there isn’t something more urgent going on that therapy may not be the first place they need to go.”
After speaking with your doctor, there are many ways to receive additional help:
- Reach out to your local PSI coordinator, either by filling out this quick online form or by calling/texting the PSI HelpLine at 1-800-944-4773 (text 971-203-7773 for Español). Coordinators can help you find a therapist, psychiatrist and support groups based on your needs and preferences. (You can also find specialized support for dads, partners and families, queer and trans parents, military families and more at www.postpartum.net.)
- Reconnect with a therapist who you have a relationship with or research therapists in your area who have experience with PMADs. They often offer flexible timing and virtual support.
- Join a support group. Check with the hospital where you delivered to see if they have support groups. Ask your therapist if they are running one or know of an in-person option. There are online groups through PSI for PMADs, pregnancy and infant loss, fertility challenges, post-abortion support, parents of children with complex medical needs and more. Groups are offered in English and Spanish.
- Follow informed, thoughtful social media accounts, such as The Motherhood Center of New York (@themotherhoodcenter), Seleni Institute (@selenidotorg), TheBlueDotProject (@thebluedotprj), PSI (@postpartumsupportinterntational), and any local therapists you trust.
If you are experiencing an emergent mental health concern, such as thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 988.
Don’t underestimate the value of day-to-day self-care
Take good care of yourself as best you can, knowing that what is helpful to you might be different from what is helpful to others. Take breaks from scrolling, do small things that bring you joy (or do absolutely nothing), try some grounding techniques, spend time with your partner, and allow yourself to fully feel the emotions you are feeling.
“I think moms need to label their emotion as grief and grieve,” Meeka says. “Go out in the backyard for 15 minutes while the kids are napping, and if you want to cry, cry. If you want to be mad, be mad. If you want to text a friend, text a friend. But just sit in the grief. It’s okay.”
And find strength in the fact that many parents are struggling, too, and that there are people inside and outside of your circle who are available to help. “Remember you are not alone,” Courtney says. “There is still a world operating around you. Reach out for help if you need it.”
Kim Hawley is the founder of Whole Parent Foundation, a KC nonprofit dedicated to the mental health and well-being of all parents, and founder and facilitator of Strength Through Story, a free online support group that focuses on healing through writing and storytelling. She is the Missouri State Lead Coordinator for Postpartum Support International (PSI) and is vice-chair of the PSI-MO board. She is currently attending the University of Michigan, School of Social Work, pursuing a degree in Social Work.