Helping a friend who has postnatal depression

holding hands
holding hands 

Imogen says, “I have a close friend with postnatal depression. Her new baby is only seven weeks old and she also has a toddler. I want to help but she doesn’t seem to want any contact – she keeps pushing me away. I know she doesn’t have any family support. How can I help her?"

Postnatal depression (PND) is a debilitating illness that devastates families and disrupts friendships right when you most need a network of support. Symptoms can include mood swings, anxiety or panic, sleep disturbances unrelated to the baby’s needs (this seems like a cruel joke – baby is sleeping soundly and you are wide awake), changes in appetite, chronic exhaustion or hyperactivity (ironing at 3 am?), feeling sad and crying for no apparent reason or feeling like you want to cry but can’t, irritability (your partner can’t get anything right, no matter how hard they try), negative and obsessive thoughts, fear of being alone or withdrawing from family and friends, loss of memory/concentration, unrealistic feelings of inadequacy or guilt, and loss of confidence and self-esteem.

Often the mood swings, anxiety and irrational thoughts that can accompany this ‘invisible’ illness make it very difficult to accept help. Leila, a mum who suffered with depression after her first baby, says, “I didn’t want anyone around because I felt embarrassed about how I looked and how the house looked. As selfish as it sounds now, having meals dropped off and people trying to do everything for me just made me feel worse. It was as if I couldn’t even take care of my family, so I became consumed with guilt and anger that other people were pitying me.”

Danielle says she suffered from severe anxiety. “Offers of help seemed to fuel my anxiety,” she says. “There were lots of ‘what ifs’ and catastrophic thoughts. On one hand, the thought of anyone popping in unannounced made me feel worse, but if they planned ahead, I would often become so anxious that I would cancel a visit or an outing.”

The experience of PND and what could be helpful is as unique as the individual woman herself. Although there can be a sense of embarrassment or shame about ‘not coping’ for some women, others are much more willing to accept practical help – like Tara, a mum of one.

“What helped me the most was knowing that when I really needed help, somebody was there,” she says. “Daily tasks were a battle -one of my biggest challenges was wandering around the house not knowing where to start, so it was great having someone to share them with.

“I had some great friends who would drop everything and come over when I wasn’t coping at all and just needed somebody to be with me. They would watch my baby while I had a shower and make me a cuppa or they would mind her while I slept. Sometimes I didn’t feel like talking at all but having them there was comfort enough.”

While it’s awful watching a friend suffer with depression, especially if she seems to be pushing you away, there are ways to show your support. Consider which steps you can take, start small, and please don’t take it personally if your efforts don’t seem appreciated right now. Keep I n mind that PND is an illness your friend has no control over. She will get better (as long as she has appropriate treatment), and she will remember that you were there for her, even if you can only do seemingly small things to help.

How to try to help

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 Listen: Don’t offer advice and don’t compare your own experience to your friend’s; she may feel worse if you start saying, “When I had my baby …” Tread gently, and be comfortable with silence if she doesn’t want to talk. She will find it difficult enough to make sense of her thoughts, without feeling judged.

 Text: She may not feel like a visit, but a simple text will show her you are thinking of her. Don’t take it personally if she doesn’t text you back; she will when she is ready. Remember, depression is so debilitating that just getting out of bed can be a huge effort some days.

 Drop off food: Drop off a meal, a favourite cake or some muffins; if this isn’t her first baby, perhaps add a lunchbox and an activity (such as a sticker book) for her toddler. You can leave food in an esky on her doorstep and text when you drop it off in case she doesn’t want to see you, or ask her partner to pick up on his way home. If you drop a meal inside, don’t hang around unless she’s okay with that, and don’t race around her home doing things. Just ask if you can hang out a load of washing, or offer to take her children outside and play with them or watch them while she has a sleep.

 Don’t do it alone: Your help and support alone won’t ‘fix’ your friend. It’s important she sees a professional, such as a doctor, to get treatment; talk to her partner to make sure they understand how vital this step is. You can also leave her some information on PANDA or BeyondBlue – she can call or visit their websites.

 Take her child(ren): Offer to take her older child to an activity class/playgroup/ your place/a playground so she can have a break and the little one has some fun.

 Take her out: Sunshine and a change of scenery can be great for lifting moods, but make it simple: perhaps try taking a short walk together, a visit to a nearby park, or coffee at a local café. Offer a short outing that isn’t overwhelming or exhausting. Again, don’t take it personally if your friend opts out at the last minute. Her anxiety may have surfaced so let her know it’s okay if she can’t manage this time.

 Be there: Don’t disappear, don’t give up on your friend and don’t feel offended if she gets angry with you. Depression is a cruel illness and recovery will take months and longer – but with treatment and support, your friend will recover. And when she gets better, your friendship will be even stronger, because you have been there all along.

Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant and author of Parenting by Heart, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying, Sleeping Like a Baby and Toddler Tactics. 

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