It’s not always easy to spot postpartum depression in a friend or loved one. There are many reasons why someone may mask symptoms of a mental health condition. Sometimes it’s unclear that certain symptoms are mental health-related. It can also feel natural and comforting, like wearing protective armor, for someone to smile and appear like everything is wonderful on the outside while their world crumbles on the inside.
Whether a byproduct of social conditioning, pride, avoidance, shame, guilt, or fear of stigma, it can be quite difficult for people to be vulnerable, admit they’re struggling, and ask for help.
While each person views and approaches mental health differently, much of our social learning has taught us to be (or appear to be) strong — especially as parents, never showing signs of weakness or letting anyone see us sweat. Pair this with the pressures women face each day and the ideals and expectations of being a new mother, and it can feel overwhelming just to think about.
If you have a friend who you think might have postpartum depression, it’s important to be gentle and proceed with care. Here are some tips on how to support them through their healing.
Know the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression
If you are concerned about the well-being of your friend and want to offer support, it may help to know the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression and how it differs from “baby blues”. Once you know what to look for and how to determine the severity of what your friend is going through, you can begin navigating the best questions to ask and the various ways you can provide support.
Check in with your friend
A great way to begin showing your support is by checking in and asking how your friend is doing. If you show genuine interest and concern for their well-being, you are opening the door for conversations about anything they may be struggling with, which is an important first step.
Depending on the closeness of your friendship, it can also help to show vulnerability on your end if your friend is having a difficult time talking about their experience. If you are close friends, it can certainly help to show vulnerability, so long as you are not burdening your friend during a difficult time. If the person you’re concerned about is an acquaintance, merely checking in and letting them know that you’re there if they need anything or want to talk (without prying) may be the best way to show support.
Ask questions, listen and offer support
Asking your friend specific questions about how they are coping as a new parent is another way to show your support. After checking in and asking questions, it’s important to listen and to show that you are truly invested in what they’re saying. If your friend expresses a specific area where they are struggling, or has an unmet need, offer your support where you can and make recommendations as needed.
For example, if your friend expresses feeling isolated or wanting to get out of the house without being on parental duty, offer to babysit one evening, or help them find a trusted babysitter, and enjoy some time out of the house with them. You could also suggest activities that incorporate exercise and healthy habits on a regular basis.
It’s also possible that your friend may not be in a place to talk about what they’re feeling. If they don’t seem open to it, it’s okay — you can still help them by meeting them where they are and not pushing. As long as you’re coming from a caring place and asking questions in a sensitive manner, you’re signaling to your friend that you care.
Identify unmet needs
There are a variety of needs that we have as human beings, and sometimes we don’t even realize those needs when feeling depressed or unwell. If you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and use it as a guide, you can brainstorm some ways to help your friend according to each need. The hierarchy begins with physical needs, like food, clothing, shelter, and sleep. You could bring your friend groceries, take them out to eat a healthy meal, take them shopping, or babysit while they catch up on sleep.
For love and belonging needs, express your love for your friend, and reassure them that you value them in your life. In terms of esteem needs, you can show your support by praising your friend for their wins and for what an accomplishment giving birth truly is. To help meet self-actualization needs, offer to support your friend in deciding which treatment option is best for them if they have not yet done so, or help them navigate something in their life that will give them a greater sense of purpose beyond being a parent.
When experiencing symptoms of depression, it can be easy to self-blame and criticize, so reminding your friend that feeling the way they do is not their fault can really help. Postpartum depression is a medical condition that can happen to anyone. This reassurance may help normalize the situation for your friend and relieve some of the pressure they’re putting on themself.
Challenge negative thought patterns
A depressed mind is oftentimes riddled with cycles of negative thought patterns that play on repeat. When you hear signs of such negative thoughts, challenge them head-on. These can sometimes come in the form of cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thoughts that can perpetuate symptoms of anxiety and depression. They often appear in "should" or "must" statements, such as "I should be doing…," or "To be a good mother, I must…"
Challenge these statements and use them as an opening to shed light on any negative thought patterns. You may also help your friend arrive at more realistic conclusions about themself, the world, and being a new parent that are free from negative connotations. Recommending a therapist to help with postpartum depression can also be a great option to help your friend in this area.
Discuss treatment options and resources
It can sometimes feel difficult or uncomfortable starting a conversation with a friend about mental health. Despite these feelings, it’s much better to have the conversation than to say nothing at all. Try to find a way to bring up mental health that is likely to be well received by your friend and get the conversation started surrounding symptoms, treatment options, and any resources needed. Being an advocate for treatment and recovery is a wonderful way to help your friend if they are struggling with postpartum depression.
The sooner your friend can get the help and support they need, the greater their quality of life will be. It can be difficult watching someone you care about struggle, and while you cannot do the work of going through treatment for them, you can certainly help be a sounding board and point them in the right direction toward healing and recovery.
Resources for support
Postpartum Support International: 1-800-944-4773
National Maternal Mental Health Hotline: 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262)