Content warning: This post contains mentions of post natal depression and mental health some readers may find triggering.
There is this incredibly false idea out there that every woman on the planet should be a ‘natural’ mum – and that’s just not the case. In fact, up to one in seven mothers in Australia are diagnosed with postnatal depression.
My gorgeous wife Allie has had what she describes as an ongoing “dance with depression and anxiety” all her life.
After the birth of all three of our boys she had three absolutely crippling episodes of postnatal depression, to the point where about nine months after the birth of our third child, Charlie, I was chatting to Allie over dinner and all of a sudden she burst into tears and slid across the table to me the goodbye letters she had written to myself and all three of our boys.
What followed was a pretty brutal conversation with a lot of tears. But it led me to contact the Black Dog Institute, who offered amazing support and eventually led us to the place we’re at now which is just wonderful.
If there’s one thing I have learnt after speaking with over a dozen experts at the Black Dog Institute, it’s that there are many different types of depression and they can’t all be treated the same way.
But there are some strategies I found useful that may help others who are doing their best to be there for their special someone who is going through postnatal depression:
1. Do NOT try to diagnose and ‘fix’ them yourself.
During Allie’s first bout of postnatal depression, I, being a typical male, thought I had a pretty good handle on how life works and could give her a few pointers on how to work her way out of her troubles.
Yeah, don’t do that.
Suggesting that the person you love should try to just “count their blessings”, “look at the gorgeous weather” or “let’s have a glass of champagne and celebrate what’s RIGHT with our life” will get you withering stares, a storm of tears or both.
I discovered the hard way that depression is something bigger and darker than you’ve ever encountered before, so put away the word ‘should’ and realise you only know enough to be dangerous.
Please encourage the person you love to seek professional help. Don’t let your partner struggle through on their own because they’re too
embarrassed, stubborn, naive or even just too down to ask for help. There are incredibly competent and compassionate people you can see who do this week in, week out.
Also, there are many different approaches to treat depression so that – if you and your partner look around – you should be able to find one that suits her personality type, and outlook on life.
One of the best bits of advice that I was given by Professor Gordon Parker, the founder of the Black Dog, was that it’s absolutely okay to try a few different specialists before you settle on one. More importantly, if you’ve been seeing someone for a few months and you’re not getting any better, see someone else.
Quite often it’s just that someone’s methodology, style of communicating or even their personality just doesn’t gel with you and you need to try working with someone new. All the experts I spoke with agreed and said, “This isn’t dating, this is a professional relationship.” If it’s not working, move on; they would never be offended.
2. There is a list of things that are proven to help – you can be the person that reminds her of what they are.
Allie has always been someone who needs her sleep. She remembers when she was a teenager hitting the wall with tiredness, going to bed at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and not getting up until midday the next day. Her brain just needs a great big reboot every now and then.
Which is why after nine months of breastfeeding, and – like a lot of new mums – trying to carry on during the day as if she was sailing through, the postnatal depression hit her particularly badly. The cruel thing about depression though, is that it not only drags you down, it also causes you to forget and even ignore the things you know help you rise back up again.
So sometimes it was my job to take the le creuset, the laptop or the laundry basket out of my wife’s hands, give her a huge cuddle, and say, “I’ll look after everything – just go to bed.”
Sometimes it was the build up of all the little things was what wore Allie down, so just me saying out loud, “I’m bringing home dinner,” was a much bigger help than I realised.
Sometimes it was just the overwhelming feeling of having this little thing totally dependent that dragged her down. Then it was always it was even better to say “I’m taking the baby for a walk, AND bringing home dinner.”
On other times, I could tell Allie was isolating herself socially – which is never good. So I had to drag her along to a barbecue she didn’t quite feel like going to. Often it was a battle to get her there, but the smile and gentle squeeze of my hand as we drove home told me she was grateful that I did.
There are a whole list of things that can help someone with depression. Sunshine, sleep, light exercise, socialising with friends who are accepting of the situation. Sometimes the best way you can help loved one is to gently put those activities on the agenda, while making sure you help to shrink the baby agenda constantly swirling around in her mind. There was one more thing that it was my job to do when Allie was deep in her depression.
Do other mothers really cause postnatal depression? According to the Australian Medical Association, yes… Post continues after audio.
3. Take funny seriously.
About two hours after Allie showed me the goodbye letters she’d written, when we’d pretty much talked ourselves out, I just paused, took a big sigh, and asked, “How can I help, or at least not make it worse?”
Allie paused for about 10 seconds, then said, “We don’t laugh anymore.”
She was absolutely right.
And it was one of those real ‘slap yourself on the forehead and say “D’oh”’ moments because I’m a former Australian Comic of the Year and was a full-time stand up in the UK. So we were ALWAYS laughing. We would go to live comedy, go and see our favourite funny movies, deliberately make time to watch all our favourite funny TV shows.
But we stopped. And life had become too grey, grim and serious.
So we started scheduling in some funny again – we’d record episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Saturday Night Live, Q.I., Curb Your Enthusiasm, and watch them back to back.
Things started, ever so slowly, to turn around.
Am I saying that a few thigh-slapping chuckles cured Allie’s depression? No, of course not. She has done some amazing work with an incredible psychologist. She sometimes still takes anti-depressant medication. Moderate exercise, sunshine, and sleep are incredibly important for her.
But the fact remains that Allie truly started to turn a corner when we started to take funny seriously. The way Allie describes it is that that laughing a lot didn’t cure her depression, but it did lift the clouds away just enough to allow her to do the things that she knew really helped.
And it’s not just me saying this, they’ve been researching the benefits of laughter on building happiness and resilience for about 25 years and the body of evidence is as encouraging as it is huge.
Deliberately choosing to laugh at your stressors has been shown to increase personal resilience, facilitate psychological well-being, and greater positive affect.
In one study by Crawford & Caltabiano in 2014, it was even found to decrease perceived stress, depression and anxiety.
A quick caveat for all partners, husbands and boyfriends: please understand it doesn’t have to be YOU that makes her laugh – in fact I’d suggest you don’t put that burden on yourself. When I tried to make Allie giggle it just didn’t work; it was like a stand-up dying on stage. “Hey, is this thing on? What’s wrong with you people?”
Perhaps we were both too close to it. Watching her favourite shows, her favourite comedies, and her favourite stand-ups was what did the trick.
One last thought to end on – and I don’t want to be Debbie Downer – but with anxiety and depression I’m not sure anyone reaches the point where they say “Woohoo, I’m cured!”
In our experience depression is much more like a bad back. Allie is in a truly wonderful place now, but we know that it will probably flare up again at some stage when stressors, lifestyle, or even internal neurochemistry get in the way.
Don’t fall into the trap of putting pressure on her to “fix this” in any length of time, or ever. The most important thing is that she knows you absolutely adore her exactly as she is.
Marty Wilson is an expert in human behaviour who helps businesses help their people be more resilient, particularly through times of change and disruption.
His new book, all about the benefits of using humour at work, More Funny More Money ($29.99, Affirm Press), is available now online and in all good bookstores.