Many people had a similar reaction this week to the news of Robin Williams’ death and to the fact that he had been living with depression for years. Like I did, they thought, “I had no idea he was struggling with that.”
But then, why would we? Depression is a lonely and personal battle. People always ask themselves after the fact why they didn’t see the warning signs. They wonder how someone like Williams, or anyone else battling depression, could have suffered so long in silence.
So I’ve been thinking this week about depression and the stigma attached to it that often prevents people from getting the help they need or even talking openly about their struggles. I think this is particularly true in cases of postpartum depression. I am not a mental health expert, but through my own experiences, I believe there are several myths that people fall into thinking about women with postpartum depression. These can severely limit the ability of women to get the help they need.
Myth No. 1 — “How could she be sad? She just had a beautiful, healthy baby.” This is perhaps the greatest myth of postpartum depression, and only serves to make mothers feel guilty. They know their baby is a blessing, but they feel they are being ungrateful by feeling depressed. So they hide their feelings, slap on a smile and pretend nothing is wrong. The truth is, women who have postpartum depression don’t love their babies less. They are not ungrateful for their children or unaware that a new baby should be a time of joy in their lives. They want to be happy, but they feel trapped and scared and guilty that they don’t.
Myth No. 2 — “She seems perfectly fine to me.” Thanks to the shame of depression, many women look and act perfectly fine in social situations. Only their closest loved ones may know they are struggling — and sometimes even they have no idea. Yes, a mother struggling with postpartum depression may be the life of the party, but what you don’t see is how she goes home and sleeps the next day because she is physically and emotionally exhausted from pretending to be happy. When the crowd leaves, she is more alone than ever.
Myth No. 3 — “If she is really suffering, she will get help.” Women suffering with postpartum are too overwhelmed to even begin to help themselves. The thought a finding a counselor is daunting, not to mention making sure insurance will pay for it and arranging regular baby sitting for their newborn, which will usually require telling someone they are seeking help. It may simply be easier to convince themselves that the depression isn’t that bad rather than to take on the headache of recovery.
Myth No. 4 — “She just needs time. I’m going to give her some space.” When I was struggling with baby blues, the last thing I needed was space. I wanted to be alone more than anything. But I needed people. I didn’t need people to tell me to snap out of it or tell me to just choose to be happy or to look at my baby and realize how lucky I was. I needed people like my best friend, who sat on my bed while I cried at exactly 8 p.m. every evening. She never judged. She never told me how wonderful my life was. She was just there.
For me, that is the key — be there. Be there with offers of baby sitting every week so new mothers can find help. Be there with drop-by visits when there isn’t a crowd to impress. Be there without judgment or suggestions or quick fixes. Just be there.
In the end, depression will be fought and conquered personally and privately. But that doesn’t mean anyone — mothers, fathers, sons or daughters — should wage the battle alone.