Mental Illness, Culture and Motherhood

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Today, one of our PMAD support group leaders and mental health professional, Kristin, shares some of her personal experiences--and some refreshing encouragement--for those struggling with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder.

Oh hey, soapbox, how you doin’? I’m just gonna step, yep, ok that’s better. The view from up here is nice…

First let me say this:

I’m a mental health professional and I hate the phrase “mental health.” Just like I hate the term “mental strength,” in case you had the joy of seeing that blurb go around Facebook last year. Why? Because it suggests polarity. If there is mental “strength” or “health,” then there must also be mental weakness, mental illness. For the record, mental strength (and by extension, mental weakness) are made up, pop-psychology, BS terms that mean nothing. I’ve consulted multiple versions of the DSM and those phrases are poppycock. That’s right, I said poppycock. Ok, all done there.

Back on track—

Of course, there exists mental illness—all kinds of mental illnesses that are both the result of biological and environmental influences. Sometimes, these plague a person’s life. Other times, they’re more inconspicuous and just require some life changes, talk, and medicine for treatment. But is the latter what you think of when you hear the term mental illness? My guess is no, and that instead your mind goes to the headlines detailing very, very sad cases, where innocent people lose their lives and the accused is none other than mental illness.  

You see, I don’t believe our culture has a way of speaking about mental health without suggesting that anything deviating from absolute wellbeing isn’t completely crazy. As a comparison, I think we speak about mental health as we might physical health—except that anything other than complete health is freaking late-stage terminal cancer. But we all know that’s not the case, that there are cases of a common cold. And still, it seems we aren’t able to associate mental illness with a spectrum of disorders, with everything ranging from adjustment disorder to schizophrenia. This is why our culture doesn’t grieve well; but again, I digress.

So where does this black and white view of mental health leave the new mother who doesn’t enjoy motherhood? She finds herself irritable and generally dissatisfied with her new life. She rides waves of sadness that crash into banks of anxiety, only to have ruminating thoughts churn a new set of waves that will inevitably meet the same fate. How do we classify her? Is she mentally ill?

Maybe. I’m sure if she sat in my office we could diagnose her (and we would have to if she paid using insurance, because that’s how the system works). Mostly, however, I think she just needs some help right now. To me, her situation is more reflective of her mental state rather than her longstanding mental health. While I don’t believe her mental state to be healthy, I also don’t believe I would tack the “ill” label on her.

And if we are going to do that, if our society is going to draw those lines, then we need a less damning way to discuss mental illness, especially for new mothers who find themselves struggling with the “common cold” of mental health.

My fear is that women who are genuinely struggling, but for whom there is certainly a light at the end of the tunnel, are not seeking help for fear of being labeled mentally ill. Such a label at such a time (new motherhood) carries heavy implications for a sense of self-worth and capability to fulfill the role of mother, potentially pushing women deeper into denial, and further from the help they need.

All that said, there are severe cases of perinatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. These require more intensive care than I alluded to in this piece, and the light at the end of the tunnel may seem a bit farther off. I believe that it is still achievable, however, and I refuse to accept that any diagnosis is without hope, especially when equipped with support.

Here’s the bottom line: since I became a mother, and I have been open with my struggles as such, I’ve found more people who can relate than those who cannot, and that girl that I spoke about, who was riding waves of sadness—that was me. Is me. And my mental state, be it healthy or ill, well, it’s what I’ve got to work with. So I’ll just do that, and I’ll attempt to do so without shame, irreverent to labels.

So if you can relate, a little bit or a lot, and if any of this resonates with you at all, I encourage you to see beyond labels. Let’s change the way we view mental health together, so that anything other than prime mental health, anything other than permanently happy, doesn’t necessarily mean that you're doomed to a life of illness either.