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A Mother's Journey: Supporting new parents' mental health in Flagstaff

Arizona Daily Sun - 2/11/2020

Feb. 11--You are not alone. You are not to blame. With help, you will be well.

This statement, from Postpartum Support International (PSI), is also the motto of A Mother's Journey, a free weekly support group hosted at North Country Healthcare, one of several local groups working to address a vital but stigmatized need: the mental health of new parents.

Amy Scott, a community health worker with the Health Start Program and one of the facilitators of the group, experienced postpartum depression after the birth of her second child 16 years ago.

"The first time I heard [the PSI phrase], I had been 14 years into my journey and just felt relief in my whole body to hear somebody say that out loud," Scott said. "It was like a huge weight had lifted, even though it was in my past. The depression I experienced was so isolating and I just thought it was all my fault, but I think women connecting with each other really helps to dispel the myth that we're bad moms or that there's something wrong with us."

Recent attendees of the longtime support group have noted similar benefits, like Rebekah Williams, who has participated for two weeks with her daughter, Ruth.

"I love it. I wish I could have been coming for longer," Williams said. "I can come to talk about anything I want, to put what I'm experiencing out there. And it's really nice to get out of the house, too!"

The free group is open to all mothers; participants can visit once or on a regular basis. Some have even visited the group decades after giving birth to share their stories.

About 15% of women experience postpartum depression, with higher rates for women in poverty or teen parents, PSI reports. Though depression is the most common complication of childbirth, this condition is just one of an entire set of mood and anxiety disorders women can experience during pregnancy, birth or up to two years after delivery, a time known as the perinatal period.

Sirene Lipschutz, a social worker in Flagstaff trained in perinatal mental health, said these disorders also include anxiety and various disorders related to this life stage, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar mood disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"The power in perinatal mental health is that we are supporting moms because when it comes to pregnancy, birth and childrearing, moms give so much of themselves, they lose their autonomy and all of the focus is on the baby," Lipschutz said. "We often hear moms being released from the hospital being told, 'At least your baby is healthy,' as if that is the thing that's supposed to hold us all together: that the baby is fine, even when we are falling apart, sometimes in a pretty major way."

Many of these perinatal mood and anxiety disorders can also affect fathers, partners or other family members during this period. PSI reports one in 10 fathers get postpartum depression and up to 18% develop a clinically significant anxiety disorder at some point during the pregnancy or the first year postpartum.

Although people often relate postpartum depression to instances where parents harm their child, Lipschutz explained this is not the case; postpartum psychosis, a condition not considered a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, is more likely the cause. Scary and even violent thoughts mothers have about their child's wellbeing -- whether they cause it themselves or not -- are normal. Women experiencing postpartum depression are more likely to hurt themselves than their children.

"A normal woman has those thoughts of something bad happening to her child, but she knows that those thoughts are alarming and that she shouldn't listen to them," Lipschutz said. "She can tell that they're wrong. A woman with a psychotic disorder can't."

"It's a completely different diagnosis," Scott said of psychosis, which usually sets in within two weeks after giving birth. "It's not like you go from OCD to psychosis or from depression to psychosis. It's a different category completely. For women who are experiencing psychosis, hospitalization is super important."

For women experiencing any of the other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders -- or any of the normal challenges of motherhood -- seeking help from others, even just by voicing a concern, can make the difference to their mental health.

Another facilitator of A Mother's Journey, Lizette Melis, Child Development Specialist at North Country, said sharing in a group can help normalize the conditions mothers experience.

"When we're depressed or we're down, we're so self-focused, so to be in a circle where you're listening to others and where you're offering support takes you out of your own mirror so you're able to share and help others," Melis said.

Mental health tips

Fortunately, because these conditions are related to such a specific period of time, Lipschutz said they are highly treatable, using resources like support groups or counselors trained in perinatal mental health.

Lifestyle habits like consistent sleep, exercise, a diet of nutritious foods rich in protein and time for yourself can also help relieve perinatal mood or anxiety disorders, PSI reports.

Accepting help from others, another of PSI's recommendations, is especially important, Scott said.

"If somebody asks to help you, the answer is always yes," Scott said. "Make a list of things that you feel comfortable with. [For example,] dishes can always be available for anybody who wants to wash them, but laundry is off-limits. Accepting help but also giving what you feel comfortable receiving is huge for a new mom."

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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