Before Bozanna Balint-Maltais’ daughter was born, she was told her child had meconium aspiration syndrome, a common respiratory condition that makes it difficult for newborns to breathe.
“I remember feeling like it was my fault she was sick,” the 18-year-old mother tells Global News.
“If I tried harder for my doctor to induce me earlier, she wouldn’t be this way. If I didn’t eat certain foods, maybe it could have been avoided — all these possibilities ran through my head and I just cried.”
Balint-Maltais is one of many mothers who live with postpartum depression (PPD), a type of depression that could start during pregnancy or anytime after birth.
May 3 is World Maternal Mental Health Day, a day to recognize how common PPD and other mental health illnesses are for new mothers.
Mark Henick, national director of strategic initiatives at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), says although statistics show one in five women experience PPD, it is far more common than that.
Henick adds one of the biggest reasons women may not reach out for help or even realize they have PPD is because of society’s views on childbirth. Namely, women are expected to be happy when they’ve had a child.
He adds that women often feel ashamed or embarrassed, and are often labelled as unfit or unloving parents.
“Some women come out of it on their own, and some slide into a state and don’t come out of it at all,” he says. “There is no shame in seeking help.”
Those first few months
Balint-Maltais gave birth to her baby girl Melody in May 2016. The Ottawa woman says when she talked about feeling depressed to the people around her, she was told she was being lazy or was simply too tired.
“It was horrible,” she says. “My daughter’s father had left me when our baby was one-week old. It really pushed me over the edge and my world crumbled. I wanted to die. I had no will to live anymore and for the first time I felt absolutely nothing but sadness when I looked at my baby girl.”
Over the year, Balint-Maltais’ PPD got worse and she began having suicidal thoughts. She was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s psychiatric ward (she was 17 at the time) and received counselling from officials. But with little improvement, she says she continued to talk about PPD with her mother. She’s only been feeling like herself again in the last two months.
“This is 100-per-cent temporary. There is nothing wrong with asking for help or admitting that you just can’t do it all right now. You need to help yourself before helping others.”
Recognizing the signs
According to CMHA, signs of PPD include feeling sad, worthless, hopeless, guilty or anxious. Some mothers may feel angry, irritable or unfocused when it comes to day-to-day tasks.
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“It can be hard to concentrate, learn new things or make decisions. Depression can change the way people eat and sleep, and many people experience physical health problems,” the organization notes on its website.
And it is quite common for people with PPD to think they don’t love their child, or have scary thoughts around harming themselves or their baby. While it’s rare for a parent to actually act on those impulses, the organization says it is nonetheless a serious situation that requires urgent medical care. They also advise calling 911 or your local crisis line if you suspect that a loved one is in danger.
Who is at risk?
Henick adds while most women are at risk, those who are homeless, struggling with their finances, unemployed, or from racialized or LGBTQ communities are at higher risk. Women with previous or family mental health history, or who have suffered trauma from sexual abuse, for example, are also susceptible.
But PPD isn’t only harmful to mothers. It can also put a strain on partners.
“It can be challenging because many partners might find it difficult to get through to that person, they may seem closed off or become irritable,” Henick says. “But often, they are just sad.”
Bee Quammie, a 33-year-old freelance writer in Oshawa, Ont., says although she knew about PPD after working in healthcare, she still had trouble coping.
Quammie, who has a two-year-old daughter and a second child due in August, says she didn’t tell anyone about how she felt.
“My family held a bit of an intervention at one point, and I started to open up to my husband and my mom,” she tells Global News. “My mom told me at that point that she had PPD when she had me as well.”
What the healthcare system could do better
Quammie says in the beginning, she would have “secret Google sessions” to see what was wrong with her, and over time went to counselling. But she says a lot more can be done.
“Our healthcare system needs to find a way to particularly reach out to different cultural groups to increase discussions around PPD in a culturally-sensitive and inclusive way,” she says.
Aprill Coleman, a mother-of-five based in Jackson, Miss., says because she had her first child at 17, she had no idea what PPD was or how to cope with it.
“As I got older, I tried anti-depressants, and in the end, I learned to cope by emotionally eating,” the 33-year-old says. “No one gave me advice in the beginning.”
Coleman says a helpful tool would be classes not only for moms-to-be but also for people in their support system like partners, children, family and friends.
“What you are dealing with is not your fault. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Call a friend, your spouse or a family member and ask for help. But please do not suffer in silence. You are not a failure.”
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.