You have probably heard of Post-Partum Depression (PPD) and the “baby blues,” but have you heard of other stress disorders related to parenthood? Did you know that birth mothers are not the only parents who can experience mental health challenges related to parenthood?

Health care professionals are increasing their efforts to screen for PPD, but more needs to be done to diagnose and support new parents, including fathers, adoptive parents, and other non-birth parents, who may be struggling with depression, anxiety or other stress disorders related to parenting. PPD is a serious condition, but it is only one of the many ways that parents experience mental health challenges, and we all need to include ourselves in a broader conversation about mental health.

Ask yourself and your loved ones often, how is your mental health right now? How are you coping with the stress of parenting? There is help available, so don’t suffer in silence. If you are experiencing any symptoms that bother you, including depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, suicidal thoughts, memory loss, or an inability to regulate your moods, seek help immediately.

Screening Isn’t Enough
When my son was born, I was given a routine assessment for PPD. The test told me what I already knew: I didn’t have PPD. What it didn’t tell me was that the intrusive thoughts I was experiencing were a symptom of Post-Partum Anxiety (PPA), something I wasn’t screened for and didn’t know anything about. During the first six months of my son’s life, I would often have visions of myself dropping my tiny baby or burning him on the hot stove. Once, to my horror, I even imagined myself snapping his delicate little arm. Because I didn’t understand that intrusive thoughts, sometimes called scary thoughts, are one of the possible symptoms of anxiety, I kept them secret, fearing that I was a monster. Once I did access counselling, after speaking to my family doctor about my symptoms, I learned to manage my condition with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I spent months needlessly suffering before I reached out for help.

Health care professionals are doing a lot of work to improve screening and education, but many of us slip through the cracks. The more that we can push back against stigma and open up about our mental health, the more that we will be liberated to educate ourselves about the range of different conditions affecting parents and to access the professional support we need.

If You Aren’t Struggling, Now is the Time to Think About Your Mental Health
Mental health is something that we often don’t think about until we develop a mental illness. Think about your mental health often and look after your mental well-being, just as you do your physical health. Unfortunately, stigma around mental illness can mean that we unconsciously consider mental conditions to be a moral or personal failing, as I initially did when I had PPA. This is never the case, and mental health conditions—like physical health conditions—are normally a combination of genetics, environmental triggers or stress, and lifestyle, although it can also simply come down to our genetic predisposition. Parenthood can be a major source of stress and can also cause us to neglect our own self-care, including social outlets, exercise, and support networks, so it is not surprising that many parents experience mental health struggles.

How to Access Support and Look After Your Mental Health
Looking after your mental health is important no matter if you are in a crisis, experiencing minor symptoms, or no symptoms at all.

If you are in a crisis and having symptoms that scare or worry you, particularly if you have had thoughts of suicide, you can immediately call 811 to speak to a nurse, or you can call the Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888. You can also head to the emergency department at the nearest hospital, or speak to a general practitioner doctor at a walk-in clinic. In addition to these resources, you can also speak to a trusted friend or family member. Talking about your struggles often makes the burden feel immediately lighter.

If you are experiencing any mental health conditions that you are worried about, but you are not currently in a crisis, the first stop will be a general practitioner. If you do not have a family doctor, you can go to a walk-in clinic. Before you go to the clinic, write down a list of your symptoms and a timeline of when you have experienced them. Sometimes, when you are in the doctor’s office, it can be hard to remember all of your symptoms, or you might be tempted to downplay some of them. By writing them down, you will be more likely to give your doctor an accurate picture of your mental health struggles. Once your doctor has enough information, they will help you decide if you need to see a counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist for further treatment. Doctors can also prescribe medications for conditions like depression and anxiety, and you can work with your doctor to decide if medication is a good idea for you.

If you are not currently experiencing any mental health struggles, now is the time to make a plan for self-care and make sure that you know how to access help, if you ever need it in the future. If you have had any mental health struggles in the past but did not seek professional help, consider talking to your doctor about it now. With the right help, you can work to understand your previous struggles better and make sure that you are caring for yourself properly. Even if you have never experienced mental health struggles, it is important to take the time to consider what types of self-care work well for you. If you are feeling a bit stressed-out, does exercise help you feel better, or a walk with a close friend? Or maybe cuddling a pet is what makes you feel better. Whatever they are, make sure you know what habits keep you feeling well, and come up with a plan to ensure that you are doing those things regularly.

Talk About Mental Health!
As well as looking after ourselves, we need to make sure that we are checking in with friends and family. By having frequent conversations about mental health, we make sure that our friends know that they can come to us for help, and we get used to talking about it ourselves as well. It’s time to break the stigma! As an added benefit, sharing our struggles is one of the most important ways that we build intimacy in our relationships: something that, in turn, supports our mental wellbeing.

Prioritize Your Mental Health
Some mental health conditions are life threatening; others are life-altering; the vast-majority are manageable. Parenthood is stressful, and all parents are affected by this extra stress in one way or another. One important thing that you can do for yourself and your family is care for your mental health. Take preventative steps; speak to a health care professional if you have any symptoms that concern you, and learn to support your mental health with self-care.

Elise Velazquez is a communications professional, mother, and UVic student. She was raised on Quadra Island and currently lives in Gorge-Tillicum.