Please engage this list noting that everyone’s experience is unique. What is helpful for some, may not be helpful to others. And what is helpful one day, may not be considered helpful the next day. The foundation of becoming a helpful support person is made first by acknowledging that you cannot fix this problem. Your loved one is suffering from an illness that is deeply emotional and biologically driven. You must acknowledge that this condition is not his or her fault, it is not your fault, it is simply the reality of your loved one’s situation. The key is to listen and observe with a thoughtful and patient posture, understanding that the victim may not be able to communicate his or her exact needs during this fragile time.
Listen to him or her cry in despair and hopelessness. Do not interject with platitudes, alternative ways of thinking or even Scripture. Simply listen and witness the hardship. Feel sorry for him/her. Though this may feel like a helpless method of support, it’s actually one of the greatest blessings to those struggling with PPD. The truth is, unless you’ve been there, you will not understand. It’s often better to simply listen and allow space for catharsis.
A strong support person is one who can stand in the gap of a loved one’s hopelessness and simply feel bad for him or her without trying to fix things. It’s okay to simply sit as a love one cries and say, “this is just so unfair and sad. I’m so sorry you are going through this,” without providing tangible solutions. Often times, those words of sympathy are more powerful and healing than changing diapers, doing laundry, or bringing a meal.
Do not compare your personal history to his or her current situation! That is not always helpful. The loved one who is suffering needs to feel the hardship of their unique situation without feeling compared to your past adversity. Do not rely on pleasantries such as “this too shall pass” – “it gets better” – “the days are long but the years are short” – “your baby is healthy, and that’s what matters,” etc. Not only are these phrases impersonal, they are honestly not helpful and can produce more shame and guilt than hope and healing.
3. Connect with Therapist
While you can provide a special space for listening and sympathy, a therapist can provide professional intervention that will help your loved one find their voice and strength in the midst of PPD. If you call PSI at 1-800-944-4773 and leave a message indicating your need for a list of therapists in your area, you will receive a call back from a person who can help connect you to therapists. While I would love the opportunity to work with your loved one, I understand I am not a good fit for all consumers and would be happy to assist in connecting individuals with the right provider if they are willing to get help.
Your loved one needs to know there is permission to feel and think the unexpected. Those suffering with perinatal mood disorders are often plagued with guilt and shame for the hidden thoughts and feelings that lurk within. Provide a safe space for him or her to admit the unthinkable to you without feeling judged or shame. Let them know it’s okay to feel like hurting their baby sometimes and that it’s okay to admit that they hate their role as parent in that exact moment. Let them feel what they feel and say what they think, even if it’s dark and scary.
If he or she admits to thoughts or actions of self harm or harming the baby, be sure to connect them to a professional that very moment, or drive them to the local emergency room to discuss their situation with a professional. Remind him or her that these thoughts and feelings are not coming from within, but are being caused by an illness and bio-chemical imbalance.
Simply being physically present with your loved one during this time is powerful.
Often times the one who is suffering just needs a witness to his or her hardship without having to narrate every thought and feeling. Offer a quick text to your loved one during the day: “I’m at Chic-fil-a with the kids, what can I bring you?” – “I’m running by Starbucks, what do you want?” – “I’m just hanging out today and thought I’d swing by we can watch TV in silence or just chat” – “I’m taking the kids to a park, want to walk with us?” –Randomly drop off a little note with flowers, or a chocolate bar…it’s the little things that remind him or her that you are there as a witness to their hardship, and a friend regardless of their appearance or attitude.
There will be moments that you want to clap your hands and yell, “snap out of it!” But you must remind yourself, this is not your loved one’s fault. This is not coming from a self-destructive disposition, spiritual weakness, or simply sleep deprivation. This is an illness. Just like you wouldn’t ask a friend with diabetes to “snap out of it,” you cannot ask a friend suffering from PPD to “snap out of it.”
Healing and recovery is a process that will involve layers of intervention and time. Let your friend or family member know that it’s okay to take 10 steps forward and 7 steps backwards. Let your loved one know that you are not leaving him or her, and that it is normal for healing to take weeks, months or even years.
Take care of yourself as a support person! If you need to see a therapist, do so (preferably someone educated in perinatal mental health). You will only be a strong support person if you are able to care for yourself and create a separate space to vent your frustrations and feelings regarding the situation.
The individual suffering with a perinatal mood disorder will usually not want company. They will not want to leave their house. They will not want other people to come to their home.
One of the best ways you might show up for a loved one during this time is to have a “standing appointment” each week during which you do a mutual check-in and time of encouragement. Ask each other hard questions about life, relationships, and spirituality. Be vulnerable with one another. Sometimes when the one suffering is put in a position to not feel like the only broken one, the only patient, or the only weak one, he or she may feel not as alone. Like a fellow human in need of community and grace. It is sometimes helpful for the one suffering to also feel as though there is space to speak into someone else’s world and to feel permission to be broken at the same time.
Not everyone may be quick to admit that physical help around the house is necessary to make it through PPD. The laundry, dishes, walk the dog, cook a meal, sweep the floors kind of help. I think what becomes most difficult to a person suffering with a perinatal mood disorder is finding the energy to come up with specific ways to help.
It may actually be more helpful for you to show up and simply say, “I’m going to go fold some laundry.” Or to let them know, “I’d like to come Wednesday at 10AM to empty your dishwasher and take your trash out. I can also walk the dog if that’d be helpful. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do, if you’d rather me not do one of those things, or if a different day or time would be better…” Just be awkwardly forward. It’s honestly most helpful and loving, even if it feels pushy.
Let the loved one know he or she can stay asleep while you’re there and that they can just leave a key under the doormat. Remember research shows sleep can be the most effective intervention for PPD.
Prayer can move mountains, break bonds, heal the sick, raise the dead, restore hope and life…prayer is the tool God gives us for partnering with Him in change. Pray for your loved one! Just as God will heal someone suffering from cancer, or the flu, He can and will heal your loved one from PPD! Pray that He would turn this season to good, as only He can!
It doesn’t have to be anything formal or fancy. Just place your hand on his or her shoulder and say something like “Please make this better for my friend, Lord.” before you leave their house.
Let your loved one know what they are doing well, and let them know often. “I’ve never met someone as persevering as you! It’s amazing you’re living through this difficulty with such beauty.” Or, “I’m so impressed by your ability to know what you need and admit it to others. I want to be more like you in that way.” Or, “you are just so strong! Watching you mom/dad through this illness with such tenderness toward your baby is challenging and inspiring!” Or, simply, “How in the world did you manage to shower today? Way to go!! You’re awesome!”
It’s these little words of encouragement that can breathe a little bit of hope and strength into your loved one’s heart, even if he or she doesn’t acknowledge it in the moment.
10 Dont’s – 10 of the more damaging things you can say or do:
- Don’t deny or belittle the diagnosis
- Don’t discourage medication or therapy
- Don’t blame the individual
- Don’t blame sleep deprivation
- Don’t criticize his or her actions during this fragile time
- Don’t abandon him or her
- Don’t compare your personal history to his or her current situation
- Don’t ignore the signs of PPD
- Don’t ignore comments alluding to self-harm or self-hate
- Don’t avoid direct questions