Postpartum Depression: A Christian Response
- Nan Giordano, M.A., L.P.C. Licensed Professional Counselor
- 2001 11 Oct
The Andrea Yates case (the woman who supposedly had Postpartum Deptression and killed all of five of her children) has many mothers nervous. She seemed like such a good Christian mom - in fact, was one. She was a conscientious, loving, responsible, and invested parent. How could she have committed the atrocity of killing all five of her children?
The question arises in our minds, "If I am struggling with some depression and anxiety, am I at risk of hurting my child?" The horror of what happened with Andrea Yates is rare. But in truth, postpartum depression (PPD) left undiagnosed and untreated can leave an enduring effect on mother and child. Hence, it is vitally important to acknowledge and understand if, in fact, you are experiencing the symptoms of PPD:
Stop and take inventory of yourself
As Christians, we are required to be self-examining with the goal of being transformed in the image of Christ. Especially if you find yourself having difficulty coping, stop and take stock of yourself emotionally and physically, rather than simply getting busier and trying harder. The Holy Spirit can indeed speak through our intuitive sense that something is wrong and we need to stop and take time to listen.
Know the signs of postpartum depression
There are three distinct types of postpartum depression:
- Baby blues: This is quite common. 50-80 percent of women experience this after childbirth. Symptoms may include mood swings, feelings of anxiety, irritability or tearfulness along with periods of feeling fine. There may be some difficulty sleeping. The key here is that these experiences are mild in form and shorter in duration, tending to last no longer than two weeks postpartum. Also, ability to function is not affected in any serious way.
- Postpartum Depression: Depression after delivery affects 1 in 10 mothers. Here, symptoms are similar to above, but with greater intensity. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are present. One may experience intense exhaustion and sluggishness, confusion, poor concentration, overconcern for the baby or a lack of interest, guilt, feelings of worthlessness, fear of harming the baby or self. These symptoms may appear within days after delivery or may not show up until several months after delivery, and can last for several months unless addressed and treated.
- Postpartum Psychosis: This is a rare condition affecting 1 in 1000 women after childbirth. Symptoms may develop within the first two weeks after delivery. Early symptoms are those of postpartum depression, but there is a rapid evolvement into disorganized behavior, delusions and hallucinations.
Risk factors for PPD may include: a family history of depression, history of severe PMS, complicated pregnancy and/or labor, thyroid imbalance, perfectionism, unrealistic postpartum expectations, added stress such as a job change, a move, death in the family, etc., lack of support, or a high-needs infant.
Accept that motherhood can be stressful and get support
Loving a child can be a wonderful, fulfilling, and magical journey, but as one author put it, "bringing home a child is like entering boot camp. Someone you barely know is controlling everything you do." It is important to normalize the stress of childrearing and realize that parenting is hard and exhausting work at times.
Andrea Yates withdrew and isolated herself from others. On the outside she appeared to be serene, handling all the demands of parenting five children with ease and energy. We live in a culture which values self-sufficiency highly. Because of this we can easily put on masks which prevent others from seeing who we really are and how we are struggling.
As Christians we can, at times, emphasize our sufficiency in Christ at the expense of God's call to community. We are all to be givers and receivers. Unlike God, who loves us, but does not need us to exist, we need each other. It is especially important to reach out and express our need for support in times of struggle and crisis.
Don't hesitate to get professional help
Seek professional help if you begin to see signs of postpartum depression. A good place to start would be to talk with your obstetrician and have a thorough physical examination. It could determine whether there is the possibility of a hormonal imbalance from a medical condition such as a thyroid problem. Also, the help of a professionally trained Christian counselor can significantly help in recovering from depression. Someone who is clinically trained can accurately assess the severity of your symptoms and support you in your recovery.
Be open to the possibility of medication
Some Christians fear the stigma of being on antidepressant medications and equate use of them with a lack of trust in God. However, severe depression and/or anxiety actually creates a biochemical change in the brain that can be corrected through the temporary use of antidepressants. Medication for someone suffering from postpartum depression is a useful tool that may be used in the process of healing, just as is true of medication for physical illness.
Don't engage in self-condemnation
Don't compound depression with self-condemnation. It is already agonizing enough to be going through the myriad emotions and thoughts you are having. It doesn't help the situation to beat oneself up emotionally. Shaming yourself by telling yourself you are a bad mom is unproductive. Be proactive by dealing with the situation and seeking a solution.
Believe in God's goodness and provision
In the midst of emotional turmoil and struggle we can find it difficult to experience God. It is at these times, that we need to cling to what we know to be true, despite what we may feel. God's promises are powerful and abundant. He has promised to never forsake or leave his children (Hebrews 13:5), He promises us a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11). David writes in Psalm 40 that God heard his cry and "brought me ... out of the miry clay and set my feet upon a rock, making my footsteps firm." Throughout the Bible God promises His strength, hope, and faithfulness in our time of need.
In conclusion, Andrea Yates clearly had the rare postpartum psychosis. She also had some prior mental health problems. She isolated herself from support and increasingly withdrew within herself. Identifying signs of postpartum depression in its early stages and getting emotional support and professional help in the form of counseling and possibly medication will prevent the depression from worsening to the point of a debilitating illness. With treatment, most women begin to feel better within one to two months and have significant improvement after six to eight months. Be proactive in taking care of yourself and getting well, for "your worth is far above rubies." (Proverbs 31:10)
Nan Giordano, M.A., L.P.C. is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice. She enjoys working with Christian women in dealing with various life issues and struggles, including postpartum depression. You may contact Nan with questions at [email protected].