Photo Photo: valentinrussanov/iStock)
May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, and this week is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week.
Every so often, I take this space to write about my own mental health experiences in the hopes of reaching others. In fact, I’ve started virtual relationships with many of you after writing articles: I hear from JewishBoston readers curious about going onto (or weaning off) medication before getting pregnant. I hear from readers who are paralyzed with anxiety, embarrassed or lonely and eager to reach out to someone who knows what they’re going through.
Most of you are similar to me, in that you have kids, partnerships and careers. Outwardly, you have it together. Your mental health struggles simmer quietly, which can make them even tougher to tackle. Mental health isn’t always a crisis; sometimes, it’s a slow and private slog.
Because this week is actually dedicated to mental health—although, let’s face it, that should be every week—I want to use this space to reassure you that depression and anxiety are nothing to be ashamed about. They’re common. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and that number continues to grow thanks to the pandemic. In the first year of COVID alone, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, according to the World Health Organization.
When I’m facing a flare-up of my own anxiety, here are some things I try to keep in mind.
- You can always say no. Make space in your life for downtime. Prioritize yourself when you begin to feel that squirrely, restless feeling creeping in. Establish boundaries wherever possible, and ruthlessly. Being overcommitted isn’t a sign of happiness or strength. (It has taken me years to realize this, and sometimes I forget.)
- It’s OK to let your kids see you sad. You’re not superhuman. Normalize uncomfortable feelings. Am I suggesting you sob hysterically or hole up in your bedroom for days on end? No, of course not. But if your child catches you crying, or if you snap when you didn’t mean to, acknowledge it and explain it. You’re not a robot.
- Make your life a safe haven. To the extent that you can, surround yourself with people who support you, hear you and make you feel seen. Toxic interlopers will pop in (annoying colleagues! snobby moms at soccer!), but don’t go chasing relationships that don’t fulfill you. Treat your relationships the way you would a well-curated bookshelf, with only people you value and treasure.
- Ask for specific things. It’s frustrating when people don’t sense that you’re adrift, but friends and partners aren’t mind-readers. Normalize vulnerability: “Hey, my depression is flaring up right now, and I’d love to go for a walk. When are you free?” We often construct narratives in our minds when we’re too guarded and private, assuming people don’t care about us if they don’t check in. It’s important to ask for help, both to receive it and to get emotional affirmation that people really do care. Loneliness builds on itself.
- Don’t be ashamed of going on medication. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a weakness or unnecessary, or that you can just fight through your problems with willpower. For so many of us, it’s a literal lifesaver. There are a lot of things I don’t love about Lexapro, mainly that it makes me sleepy and causes weight gain. It’s not a magic pill. But it keeps me on an even keel, helping me to address the root causes of my anxiety from a rational perspective.
- Relish small victories. This is really important. We’re conditioned to believe that success comes from milestone achievements, like new jobs, new homes or running marathons. When you’re in the throes of anxiety or depression, making dinner can feel like a triumph. Encourage yourself by setting micro-goals, even if it’s making your bed or walking around the block.
- Having mental illness doesn’t make you an inadequate parent. It makes you a nuanced, real one. The stakes seem higher, of course, when we have kids: We need to be stable and reliable. But having kids doesn’t automatically confer serenity (actually, quite the opposite). The good news is there’s so much support out there, even while therapists are hard to find. Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s mental health offerings are a helpful place to start.
Please remember that you’re not alone, even when it seems like everyone else is out there living their best life. Please also remember that, whatever you’re feeling, it’s temporary. Although these feelings might pass through you, they don’t define you and they are not you. This is true during Maternal Mental Health Awareness month, and always.