Depression and anxiety both during pregnancy and afterwards are common, affecting 4 to 17 percent of all mothers, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
“I have struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, even as a child I struggled with that sort of thing,” said Jennifer Petrosky, a therapist who has two young children. “And what I have learned about maternal health as a therapist and just being a mom is it’s just not discussed until after the baby is born.”
Even then, she said, her doctor just asked her if she was suicidal – she wasn’t – and left it at that. She was able to cope until she got pregnant again.
“When I got pregnant with my daughter, my dad had passed away about two months before that, we’d had a miscarriage, my husband had chronic fatigue and couldn’t get out of bed most of the winter. I know stress played a big role, but everyday I just cried in the shower because I was so anxious and so depressed and I was like ‘there’s no village around me to help.’”
“The way that we live, the trends in our current society, definitely compound or magnify the experience of postpartum depression,” said Michelle Comer, the West Virginia support coordinator for Postpartum Support International and a therapist specializing in maternal mental health. "It isn’t new – it’s been around since moms have been having babies.”
Comer said a big help to moms who are feeling anxious, depressed and alone is connecting with others in the same boat.
“We were never intended to parent in isolation,” she said.
And yet many women find themselves asked to be supermom – to be everything for everyone and to do it by themselves.
“And a lot of people say, ‘Oh, I live around a lot of people,’ or ‘I go to church and they’re really nice.' But that’s not people living with you,” said Danielle Bergum. Bergum has a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old. When she got pregnant the first time, it wasn’t planned and she didn’t want to be pregnant. The rolling emotions led to severe prenatal depression and a lingering sense of isolation.
“Historical, tribal culture – the only thing that they were doing was survival. They had help just with basic survival needs,” said Bergum. “And we’re expected to not only do our basic survival stuff on our own, we’re expected to do everything we put on top of that on our own, just to function in this culture that we’ve created. So part of it is this perspective about what being successful is and what you’re supposed to do as a mom, as a dad.”
Bergum ended up becoming a doula (a birth support person) and a birth educator. She focused on her nutrition and overhauled her lifestyle so that she felt balanced again. For her, this meant finding a job she could do from home and homeschooling her kids. It was a long process.
For others like Sarah Dusenbery, though, feeling “normal” again may involve medication.
“After I had my second child five years later, it was just like the same thing repeated itself. And that’s when I kind of realized something was wrong, but I was too ashamed because it’s not talked about enough,” said Dusenbery.
Dusenbery didn’t get help until after the birth of her third child, despite the fact that feelings of anxiety and depression lingered for months, then years, after each birth. Now that she’s on medication for her anxiety and depression, she said she feels like a new person.
For all three women, and probably for many of the moms in your life, a recurring theme is the need for support and the desire for a return to some kind of village where the burdens, and joys, of raising children, can be shared.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.