When I share my postpartum depression story, people often ask me, “What do you wish your organization had done for you?” This is a difficult question to answer because what I wish for was most likely not available. I also don’t hold my organization or my teammates responsible for what they didn’t know.
Organizations are made up of humans, and often these well-meaning men and women don’t have the training, expertise, time, or even the capability to identify and lean into a team member struggling with a mental health concern, let alone depression. It would be silly of me to think that “someone should have done something” when the majority of my supervisors and team leaders were men.
Furthermore, the only women in leadership I would have approached lived two provinces away and would have been limited in their practical care for me. These men and women I speak of were caring and thoughtful, but very busy people, like most workers I know. In hindsight, I can point out gaps of care and a workaholic mindset in my organization that caused me to try and hide away my struggles, and I wasn’t the only one. The consequence of people taking on too much led to isolation, broken marriages, hidden addictions, abuse, and teen suicide (all of which occurred among several of my colleagues in the country where I lived for ten years).
There was a mindset that “everything should be okay” when you are sacrificing for the Lord overseas. People who were struggling were prayed for, took leaves of absences, and I even remember thinking, “I guess they couldn’t hack it.”
Over the last few years, several women have opened up to me about their struggle with PPD (past or current), and I have discovered one commonality…a fear to share with their team, their organization, or sending church. This sadly sheds light on the stigma surrounding mental health in missions.
Despite this, I have encouraged women to find a “safe friend” (this can be a spouse, a mentor, a teammate) and tell them what’s going on, and that action is always needed– whether it’s a change of scenery, a doctor’s visit, or therapist’s consultation. I desperately wanted to do all that back then, but I was scared to death I would be sent home and that my overseas life would be destroyed forever. All I remember during that dark period in my life is feeling scared and confused by my inability to overcome; I felt like a failure and that it was wrong for me to be in the condition I was in. I felt so alone at the time, and since I had never heard my organization, my church, my supporters talk about mental health issues openly, with compassion, I was hesitant to “go there.”
One way to open the avenues for discussion about mental health is for organizations to talk about it in their promotional materials and resources, during recruitment, orientation, and training. Destigmatizing mental health issues, just by being open and honest, creates an atmosphere of acceptance instead of judgment. This shows a willingness to “be there” and to look at options for intervention, specific care, or rest. In my experience, things like suicide, depression, and addiction were kept VERY hush hush in my former organization, at least in the country where I worked.
On top of this, I worried about the way I would be perceived by my sending churches and supporters. I was supposed to be this strong and sacrificial missionary, not some fledgling new mother who burst into tears every hour for months on end. Looking back, I know, that there are people who I could have turned to, who would have helped me through the postpartum depression without judgment or disappointment. But I was not in the headspace to think through that. Instead, I suffered silently.
When a couple gets pregnant, an organization should offer more than just the space and time for the delivery and recovery…it goes beyond that. It’s important for supervisors or teammates to “check-in” and see how they are doing. Precedent should be set that postpartum depression is NORMAL, that it can be mild to severe, last for only a short time, or go on longer than expected. And if there is a concern, or there is trouble functioning, then the organization is there to support decisions made by the couple to get whatever help is needed.
Consider these points for a woman going through PPD:
—She needs to INITIALLY be listened to– not judged, not counseled, and in some cases, not prayed over (this can come across as demeaning or belittling).
—She most likely needs a small, intimate, confidential group of people to initiate a plan of care– this may include bringing in a counselor, a doctor (if meds are needed), an advocate (not the spouse), and her choice of friends or confidants for regular check-ins. This group may or may not include specific supporters or mentors from a sending church or family members.
—She needs confidentiality. Her story is HER story, and it’s not for someone else to share or shoot out on a prayer chain without permission.
—She needs space to heal and time. Though potentially perceived as disruptive to “the work,” counseling, rest, and medical care will reap long-term benefits and also demonstrate an organization’s commitment to whole health for their workers. This might mean a sabbatical, medical leave, a retreat time, or simply a shift in work responsibilities and team expectations. It might mean having a support worker come and live with the family to help out. It could be hiring local help, taking a break from language learning, or joining a support group.
—She may need to see a doctor for evaluation and diagnosis, so treatment can be considered. There are also several resources online, as well as assessments to determine if one is dealing with PPD.
A few years ago, I was urgently asked to skype with a new mom who was “not well” on the other side of the ocean. She was on a remote, isolated island hundreds of miles away from health care or other Christians. Before she had the baby she was a vibrant, thoughtful, and adventurous gal. But when we connected over the computer screen, I was looking at a face that looked a lot like mine ten years earlier. My friend was wrecked, hopeless, and in utter despair. I saw the pain in her eyes, the ache in her tears, and the lies in her voice: “I’m such a failure.” “I can’t do this anymore, I feel so ashamed.” “Why is this happening to me?”
Like me before, she was unbalanced hormonally and suffering emotionally, while living completely isolated from a familiar community. She had very little support. No one was forcing her to stay there, it’s only that no one was telling her it was okay to leave, to go and get help. Outside of her husband who was willing to do anything for his wife… teammates were silent, her supervisor was hesitant (besides, his wife didn’t go through PPD), and the mission pastor back home encouraged them to “push through.” It has taken her years to recover from that trauma.
Resources and Stories about Faith and PPD:
What do I wish? I wish that women struggling with postpartum depression didn’t have to ever worry or fear that they must suffer silently. It’s time for churches and mission organizations to bless the lonely and depressed mother instead of holding her to a perfect ideal. The more we talk about mental health and motherhood, the stronger our missions communities will be.
The idea of where to start with Postpartum Depression (PPD) on the field can be overwhelming, We’ve made three checklists that will break down step-by-step what to be looking for and what you can do. The three checklists are for those who are having a baby, has a teammate who is having a baby, and for those in member care and someone in your organization is having a baby. You’ll be emailed all three checklists, download the one (or ones) you want. Get your checklist (or lists!) here.
In this PPD series:
Part 1: My Story with Postpartum Depression on the Field
Part 2: Postpartum Depression—What it is and What to do about it
Part 3: A Conversation with my Husband about PPD
Part 4: How Organizations Can Support Women Going Through PPD