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Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are the most common complication of childbirth. Nearly 1 in 5 people will experience an emotional complication like depression or anxiety during pregnancy or the first year of their child’s life. If your partner is currently struggling with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, you might feel worried, concerned, or unsure about what your partner is going through — all while you are adjusting to pregnancy or new parenthood yourself!
If your partner is experiencing a mental health complication during pregnancy or postpartum, don’t worry alone! We asked Divya Kumar, LICSW, ScM, PMH-C, a Psychotherapist specializing in Perinatal Mental Health (she’s also the expert that leads our FREE mental health classes!), what partners can do to help.
Below, she shares her tips that will hopefully ease your worries, facilitate communication, and provide concrete suggestions about how you can support your partner during this time of adjustment.
1. Communicate. If your partner is telling you how they feel, listen to them. Try not to dismiss or minimize what they are telling you, and try not to jump into problem-solving mode right away. When our loved ones are suffering and struggling, we often want to solve the problem or make them feel better quickly, but unfortunately, that may not be possible; moreover, jumping into problem-solving mode can make someone feel unheard or dismissed when they are trying to tell you that they are feeling bad. When our loved ones tell us that they are feeling down or they feel like a bad parent, our first instinct may be to say, “It’s OK; you’re doing great! Don’t worry about it!” While all of this may, in fact, be true, it may not be helpful at the moment when your partner is asking to be heard.
Instead, try to sit with your partner’s feelings (yeah, that’s a therapist-y thing to say, but hear me out–) and offer, “I’m sorry that you are feeling so down now; that sounds hard.” Showing that you can hear what they are saying opens the door for further communication. Also, ask open-ended questions, like “How long have you felt this way?” or “Can you tell me more about what’s going on for you?” Showing that you are open to hearing all of what your partner is feeling and what they are worried about will facilitate further communication. If you’re concerned about your partner and want to bring this up with them, that’s great. Try to use “I” statements if you can, such as “I’m worried about you” or “I’ve noticed that you don’t seem like yourself; can we talk about how you’re feeling?” Communication is often the most important piece of navigating perinatal mental health concerns.
2. Help your partner focus on what is going well. No, not in a dismissive or toxically positive way, but here's the thing-- when we are depressed or anxious, we start to see everything through that lens, and our depressed and anxious feelings then inform our thoughts about ourselves and our perceptions of the world around us.
As a result, we are more likely to focus on what isn’t going well and what we are “doing wrong”, and we are less able to recognize all of the positive things. By pointing out specific things that are positive or are moving in the right direction, you can help to cultivate feelings of empowerment, hope, and confidence in your partner. Was your partner able to get out for a walk yesterday? Are they laughing more frequently? Did the baby wake less frequently last night? Try to remind your partner about these improvements if they are unable to recognize them for themselves.
3. Ask for help and accept help when people offer it. It can be tempting to want to take care of as much as you can by yourself, and also, many of us cope with stressful situations by DOING something so that we feel more in control, but in reality, your energy is best spent providing emotional support for your partner.
Think about assembling a care team for your family. If you are financially able to, order groceries or takeout. If friends or family ask what they can do, graciously accept and give them concrete tasks– food, cleaning, or errands. Trying to complete all of the tasks yourself can leave your partner feeling more isolated, so whenever possible, delegate practical tasks so that you can attend to your partner’s mental health needs.
4. Seek out professional support. Asking for help also means seeking professional support for your partner, such as a postpartum doula, overnight nurse, lactation professional, or perinatal mental health provider. When your partner is struggling, they may know that they need extra support but may be too exhausted to research and find that support themselves. Don’t know where to start with finding perinatal professional support? Contact your local Postpartum Support International Coordinator; they can help you identify resources in your area.
5. Help your partner maximize sleep. Sleep is a cornerstone of mental health, and sleep deprivation can exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress. Many individuals struggling with PMADs also have difficulty sleeping, and consequently, a vicious cycle can begin where lack of sleep increases anxiety, and increased anxiety inhibits sleep.
Are you able to take a shift with the baby overnight so that your partner can get 4-6 hours of uninterrupted sleep? Are you able to hire a night nurse or postpartum doula (and yup, we just talked about asking for help)? If your partner is nursing, that’s OK– sleep and nursing do not have to be mutually exclusive, and lactation professionals can come up with a plan that supports both nursing and mental health.
***Please note that not being able to sleep at all could be a red flag and a sign of postpartum psychosis; if you are concerned about psychosis, please call your mental health emergency number right away. Read more about the signs of psychosis here.
6. Help your partner attend to their basic needs and self-care. Have healthy, protein-forward snacks in the house and easily accessible to your partner (nuts, cheese sticks, granola bars); blood fluctuations can exacerbate fatigue and low moods. Offer to take the baby so your partner can get a break, a nap, a shower, a walk, a phone call with a friend. The mental health field loves to talk about self-care, but in reality, self-care is only possible when other people make the space and time for it to happen– you can do this for your partner.
7. Try not to catastrophize or assume that this is the way your partner will always be. Remember that this is how your partner feels right now and this is what is happening right now, and it will not be forever. When you are a new parent and you don’t have much or any experience with parenting, it can be easy to believe that the way it is now– whether things are going well or not– is the way it will be forever. Also, it’s very possible that your partner is also catastrophizing and worrying that things will not get better or something bad will happen, and if you can, try to disrupt that. Remind your partner that what’s happening now is happening now, and while this time is hard, it is forever.
8. Read up on perinatal mental health. Check out PSI’s resources– they are quick reads and provide thorough, accurate, and up to date information on all perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including symptoms, treatment options, prevalence rates, and other reliable sources for information on perinatal mental health. Having information can help you better understand what your partner is experiencing, can facilitate conversations with your partner, and can also provide tangible next steps, such as reaching out to find a therapist for your partner. Knowledge about perinatal mental health will also help you feel reassured– and can help you reassure your partner– that what is happening is not their fault and that they will get better.
9. Take care of yourself. 10-20% of fathers experience depression or anxiety during the perinatal period, and having a partner with postpartum depression is a predictor for paternal postpartum depression. Partners in all family structures may find that seeing their loved one struggle with perinatal mental health is stressful. They may also find that providing emotional support to a partner while they, themselves, are adjusting to new parenthood (while sleep deprived too!) can be exhausting. While you are understandably focused on helping your partner get well, please be sure to also attend to your own mental health needs too.
Do you need an hour to yourself so you can take a walk, exercise, or see a friend? Are you getting enough sleep? Would you like to connect with other folks whose partners are also struggling with PMADs? Remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup, and your mental health is important too. PSI offers numerous supports for dads and for LGBTQ parents.
Overall it’s important to understand this isn’t forever — for you, or your partner. You and your partner are not alone, and help is available. If you want to learn more about perinatal mental health, check out our FREE mental health classes here. Where Divya answers some of the biggest questions most parents never ask… but want to.
Perinatal mental health is nothing to take lightly. If you need assistance in finding resources near you, contact Postpartum Support International at 800-944-4773. For immediate support, call the Maternal Mental Health Hotline at 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS. If you are in crisis call your local emergency number or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).