Being there for one another “in sickness and in health” is a promise many of us make to our partners—whether we get married or not. Unspoken in those words is yet another pledge: To show up in times of great joy and unexpected sorrow. So if your significant other is suffering from perinatal depression, the time is now to stay by their side, ask good questions, and support them as they muddle through deep, complicated emotions.
Perinatal depression, “PD” for short, is the term for depression that occurs during pregnancy (prenatal) and after the baby is born (post-partum). This mood disorder can happen to anyone and is characterized by persistent anxiety, abnormal appetite, and difficulty sleeping—among other symptoms. While there’s no single cause of PD, researchers believe that it’s likely sparked by environmental and/or genetic factors.
Let’s be perfectly clear: PD is a serious disorder and requires gentle, compassionate care. So if you suspect your partner may be experiencing PD, it’s best to support them in finding a mental health professional and allowing that professional to take the lead on what’s next.
To help you understand your partner’s emotions and needs right now, we asked a handful of perinatal mental health experts to walk us through the basics of PD—and how to stand by your other half during this bittersweet season of life.
After giving birth, about 8o percent of people experience what’s known as the “baby blues.” “With the baby blues, there may be some disruption in sleep. Maybe somebody feels a little irritable, sad, or anxious. However, the baby blues don’t necessarily interfere with daily life function, and they go away without significant intervention,” says perinatal psychotherapist Kara Cruz, LMFT.
The baby blues last up to two weeks postpartum. After that, any lingering depression becomes clinically known as a perinatal mood disorder—of which there are six types:
These conditions are serious and scary—but they’re also remarkably common among new parents. “In California, about one in five people experience postpartum depression, anxiety, or another mood disorder. So even though the baby blues are very common, perinatal mental health [issues] are very common as well,” says Cruz.
She notes that men and non-birthing people can also experience PD, especially if they’re losing sleep after the baby’s birth or have watched their partner undergo a traumatic birth.
“If you notice any [PD] symptoms in your partner that persist for longer than two weeks, are impacting their functioning, or are causing distress, you should support them in seeking help from a professional,” says Rachel Diamond, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Ask your significant other if you can arrange an appointment and take them to the doctor. “There are websites where you can search for therapists and filter out certain symptoms for postpartum mental health and for women's mental health. You can find somebody who has some experience and specialty in this particular area,” says Cruz.
If you are having or have had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please dial 988 immediately to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Of course, in any emergency situation, you should always call 911 first.
While your partner is receiving treatment from a licensed mental health professional, you can support them in various ways—both big and small.
“You are likely to be one of the first people to notice that something is going on with your partner,” says Thriveworks grief, trauma, and depression specialist Teri Wilder, LMHC. “Continue to love and support them as you normally would, though it may be concerning to you and frustrating that they are not doing or feeling the same as they usually do.”
Check in with your partner frequently to ask how they’re doing and what you could do to support them right now.
Having a strategy in place can save you in times of distress. “During pregnancy—particularly if the birthing partner is at risk for developing postpartum depression—expecting parents can develop a postpartum wellness plan,” says Dr. Diamond. “This way, a plan is in place before it feels like a crisis. A plan can include ways the partner can support the birthing parent’s sleep, nutrition, and appropriate physical activities for their stage of postpartum recovery.”
Since getting enough sleep is such a huge concern for new parents, Cruz often recommends coming up with a sleep schedule. Perhaps the two of you can take turns getting up at night to feed the baby, and/or each can get a full night of sleep on the weekends (Friday and Saturday).
While too many visitors can be overwhelming, Cruz says that a little company can go a long way. New parents are often feeling lonely after spending more time than usual at home. “Bringing in support people to help care, nurture, pamper, and support you and your partner during this time can be useful,” says Wilder. “Be careful not to overwhelm yourselves and take it easy, but also remind yourself that this is your time to heal and adjust to the transition of being a family (or growing your family).”
These visitors can help with child care, errands, or just sit and talk with your partner while they’re pumping or nursing. An external support group may also be a good option.
“A new parent will often overidentify with the symptoms of depression,” says Dr. Diamond. “The symptoms of postpartum depression can trick parents into believing that they are not a good enough parent and that they are failing—because these are the very symptoms of the disorder. But [the individual] is not the problem; the symptoms of depression are the problem.”
According to Dr. Diamond, a partner can help gently challenge this way of thinking when it comes up. They can remind them that these feelings will pass and that they’re already a great parent.
PD can make new parents feel like they’re already failing at being a caregiver, so what better time to tell the person you love that they’re doing a great job? “So much of the labor of new parents, oftentimes mothers, is invisible,” says Dr. Diamond. “It’s important for partners to acknowledge and validate the incredible value this labor brings to the home and demonstrate appreciation.”
*All six types of PD require the help of a mental health professional. However, perinatal bipolar and perinatal psychosis are life-threatening and require immediate medical attention. Call the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline, 1-833-852-6262, for more information.
Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.