There are many myths about postpartum depression — everything from it’s not real to it’ll go away on its own to it affects only certain women. The reality is that postpartum depression is a serious illness that does not discriminate, said Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW, a therapist specializing in preventing and treating perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and supporting couples in their relationship as their family grows.
The reality is that you can experience PPD after a traumatic or an ideal birth experience. The reality is that having PPD doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby or aren’t grateful to give birth to a healthy child, Gillette said. “It means that right now [you are] challenged by a serious illness that requires treatment.”
The reality is that PPD affects people differently. Some feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair. Some cry. Some feel rage. Some experience difficulty concentrating. Some can’t get out of bed and gain or lose weight. Some feel numb, worry excessively and have physical symptoms, such as headaches and backaches. Some seem like they’re coping just fine, but inside they’re drowning.
Below therapists cleared up three myths that too many people misinterpret as the truth — from who gets PPD to how it manifests.
Myth: Only biological moms experience PPD.
Fact: “Biological and adoptive mothers appear to struggle with postpartum depression at about the same rates,” said Jessica Fowler, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. While hormones may play a role in contributing to PPD, there are other factors. “Having a baby impacts all of a person’s relationships, environment and identity.” Adoptive moms struggle with similar stressors and life changes as biological moms, she said.
A history of infertility may be linked to PPD, as well. Fowler cited this study by Mott and colleagues. They noted, “effects of infertility are thought to be long-lasting and may continue into the post-adoptive process.”
Adoptive moms tend to experience the same symptoms as biological moms — everything from insomnia to anxiety to hopelessness to anger, Fowler said.
Adoptive moms and moms who’ve had fertility issues also might feel an added layer of guilt and shame, said Rachel Rabinor, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker specializing in maternal mental health with a private practice in San Diego, Calif. “They’ve fought really hard to get their children,” and they bash themselves for not feeling as happy as they think they should. (Again, please remember that this isn’t a matter of choosing to feel a certain way. You’re struggling with a serious illness.)
Dads can get PPD, too. Stress can be a big factor — stress from little sleep, financial concerns, relationship problems or health issues of the baby, Fowler said. History of depression also can predispose a father to PPD.
“Similar to a mother, a father can also be grieving losses, such as his previous life, or even his wife — as he now has to share her.” Like moms, dads might experience changes in sleep and appetite; irritability; anger; and anxiety. They might additionally withdraw from others; have a loss of libido; turn to substances; and feel jealous or resentful toward their baby, she said.
Myth: You can’t take antidepressants while you’re breastfeeding.
Fact: PPD requires treatment. Without it, the illness just gets worse. As part of treatment, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants. (Therapy is another critical part.) “Most are considered safe and only trace amounts are passed through to [your baby],” Rabinor said.
She underscored that taking medication is a very personal decision, which needs to be thoroughly discussed with your physician. And that discussion should include a review of side effects, effectiveness, followup appointments and any other concerns you have.
For many moms the inability to enjoy time with their baby can be more harmful than taking the medication and possibly discontinuing breastfeeding, Rabinor said. Also, medication may be vital for moms with severe symptoms.
Taking medication doesn’t mean you’re weak or that you’ve failed as a parent, Gillette said. It means you’re trying to take good care of yourself — which benefits your baby and your family. Plus, the goal is for parents to feel real relief, not just to survive or get by, she said.
“We would not tell someone who had high blood pressure to ‘tough it out’ without medication or degrade them for taking care of themselves. We would not tell them to take just a little bit of their medication.” It’s important to take your medication as prescribed.
Rabinor suggested checking out this resource and this one for more information on medication and breastfeeding, along with this comprehensive Postpartum Progress page. Gillette noted that Mother to Baby is an excellent resource.
Myth: Scary thoughts are a sign that you’re crazy.
Fact: Many moms have disturbing, unwanted thoughts during postpartum depression. According to Gillette, some of the most common thoughts are: “I’m going to drop my baby” and “The baby might drown (during bath time).”
“We know intrusive thoughts means our minds are playing tricks on us due to anxiety, sleep deprivation and worries about the safety of our children. Intrusive thoughts actually show women are not crazy, because the thought is disturbing to them and they want to protect their children.”
Of course, in the moment, these thoughts are still very scary. And your first instinct might be to push them away. However, a more helpful approach is to acknowledge them, Gillette said. For instance, you might tell yourself: “These are just thoughts, and thoughts are not actions.”
All the therapists stressed the importance of seeking help. You “don’t need to suffer in silence,” Rabinor said. “You are the best expert on you. If something feels wrong, it probably is.” Reach out. Talk about your dark thoughts and feelings. Check out helpful organizations and websites (like Postpartum Progress, Postpartum Support International and The Postpartum Stress Center). With treatment, you can and you will get better.
This piece also explores five other damaging myths about postpartum depression.
Depressed mom photo available from Shutterstock