Being aware, knowing what to look for and feeling comfortable to approach someone who may be struggling, can be a sensitive and delicate issue. Below are some steps that may be useful to consider if you find yourself in a position where you are concerned about someone who may be struggling during pregnancy or in the months following the birth of their child.
If you know someone who is expecting or has had a baby recently, it’s important to be aware that they are at increased risk of distress or developing mental health problems during pregnancy and in the first year following their baby’s birth.
This is particularly the case if they have a range of risk factors, including for example, a personal or family history of mental health conditions, stress related to the pregnancy/baby, other stressors incurred at this time (for example work or financial stress) or low levels of support.
The first thing to take note of is whether you have noticed any changes in the person’s behaviour. For example, do they seem more withdrawn than normal? Are they avoiding social interactions with others? Have they stopped doing things they used to enjoy? Are they coming to work later or finding it difficult to concentrate/meet work deadlines? Do they seem to be drinking more?
These are some possible indicators that someone may be struggling. Whilst you might think that these are likely to be easy to observe, the fact is that often people do not want others to know that they may be struggling to cope, for fear of how they may be judged by others – as individuals and, as parents.
Partners of women who may be struggling may also be reluctant to disclose how they are feeling or share that their partner is finding things difficult, as they don’t want to be disloyal to their partners. Men who may be struggling themselves, often also ignore their symptoms, and don’t discuss how they are feeling, as they feel that they need to be ‘the strong one’.
Generally this is likely to lead you to ask the person how they are, whether they have sought help. Whilst this seems so logical, often with mental health conditions people shy away from such conversations, as they may be concerned how the person may react. The fact is however, often avoiding the conversation can only lead people to feel more isolated, so taking the first step to initiate a discussion can be very helpful.
It can be helpful to simply acknowledge from the outset that parenting can be very challenging. It is also useful to convey that you are aware that it is not always like it is portrayed. This is particularly the case for couples who may for lots of reasons have additional stressors on them at this time, and as a result, are at greater risk of distress.
Some helpful questions to open up the lines of communication are:
It can also be useful to let the person know if there are any changes in them that you have noticed, but importantly let them know that you are concerned or worried about them. The person may be grateful of the opportunity to talk, or alternatively they may be a little defensive. In this case let them know that you are there to talk if, and when, they are ready. This may be all that you can do right now, but offering practical support such as cooking a meal, offering to run errands or help with other children can also be a great way to support them right now.
When it comes to getting help, it can be a useful guide to ask yourself, what would I do if this person seemed to be suffering with a physical health problem? Too often people leave help-seeking for emotional and mental health problems too late – often until they reach crisis point, so encouraging them to seek help early is paramount.
Depending on your relationship with the person, you can also help facilitate help-seeking. This could include for example, helping them source an appropriate health professional, assisting them to make an appointment, taking them along to the appointment and/or following up after to see how they went. The same can apply whether the person is your partner, family member of friend, or a colleague in the workplace.