Carla, an attractive woman in her 30s, sat in my Clinic, the tears spilling over her cheeks as she revealed what she considered to be her shameful secret. She explained that she had suffered with depression for years but had never told a soul, fearing the reaction her confession would bring.
Carla is, in my experience as Director of a Clinic specialising in emotional issues, fairly typical of what I call the ‘classic depressed mum’. Depression is one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions and unless you have experienced it, you cannot know how truly debilitating it can be. Because of this, reactions to depressed people tend to range from the unhelpful (‘pull yourself together’) to the downright insulting (‘it’s ungrateful to be depressed when you are blessed with healthy kids’). This leads to sufferers having the added burden of guilt, of believing that they have no ‘right’ to feel down. This in turn leads to hiding their condition, often, like Carla, suffering years (on and off) without anyone really being aware of their inner turmoil.
One of the first things I do when treating a new client with depression is reassure them that they are not alone. Whilst depression amongst new mums is now fairly well acknowledged and understood, earning sympathy and appropriate treatment, mums are expected to ‘grow’ out of it as their baby grows. Yet post-natal depression can persist years – and equally, a new mum can sail through the early years only to suffer depression once her kids start school or become more independent.
Depression strikes for many reasons, but with mums, it is usually centred around feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. This isn’t so different from anyone with depression, but the ‘triggers’ might be tied in with their role as Mum, for example, feeling that they:
- are not a good enough parent,
- are a poor role model for their children,
- are becoming less needed as their children grow up,
- are not ‘contributing’ to society because they are a stay-at-home mum, or,
- are not a good enough mum if they are working outside the home.
The underlying feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem that feed most cases of depression are bolstered by comparisons with other like people, but whereas in the past we only had our social circle and the playground mums to use as social barometers, now we have social media too. Facebook allows us to be privy to so many more sources of self-esteem-busting nuggets of information than ever before, such as parties and social events that we have not been invited to (‘Why not? Does no one like me?)’, exotic holidays others have taken (‘I wish we could afford to go to abroad twice a year instead of a week in Blackpool’), the achievements of our kids (‘Lucy got a merit in Grade 5 piano whereas my Chloe just struggled to pass her Grade 3), ‘likes’ (‘she got 43 likes for that comment whereas I rarely get more than 10 whenever I post anything’) etc etc. Everyone else seems so much more successful, interesting and popular on Facebook.
Of course, it isn’t just mums who can feel down, and depression strikes men just as much. But the self-esteem of mums is often more intimately connected with their children than it is for dads (for example, dads rarely feel a failure if their baby is a poor feeder, but some mums do) so the triggers of depression are often very different.
Most depressed parents, whether mums or dads, however, tend to experience the same pro-typical distorted patterns of thinking. These are usually negative and automatic and thus very hard to ‘catch’. These negative thinking patterns tend to fall within the themes of 1) negative opinions of yourself, 2) self-criticism and self-blame, 3) negative interpretation of events and 4) negative expectations of the future. Challenging these thinking patterns is the basis of many effective therapies for depression.
Just knowing that they are not alone can be immensely reassuring to people with depression, which is why I am heavily involved with a local internet support group (anxietydepression-support.org) run by a lovely husband and wife team in the NorthWest. Mums (and dads) who are feeling down need to know that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them for feeling like this, that there is nothing to feel ashamed about and certainly nothing to feel guilty about. There is lots of help out there, from support groups and self-help books, to medication and treatment via your GP and, of course, private therapy providers.
As for Carla, after a few weeks of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, she has managed to change her negative thinking patterns dramatically. This doesn’t mean she will never get depressed again, but it does mean that her down times are far less frequent and less severe. And that is definitely something to smile about.