Anneke van den Berg
Peer Health Worker
Feeling lonely is a feeling many perinatal parents identify with.
Nothing is lonelier than being up with a fussy baby in the middle of
the night, while you are exhausted and in tears yourself. Lonely is
different than being alone. We can experience loneliness, even if
there are people physically around us and these people might even be
people we love. In this Pandemic, the physical presence of people is,
of course, a bit more complicated. The current situation definitely
has fueled the feelings of isolation, but is hardly unique to our
Pandemic reality. It is sometimes hard for perinatal parents to
understand that perinatal mental health struggles aren’t unique to
the Pandemic either.
really about the absence of people with whom we can be authentically
ourselves, with all the messy emotions, all the feelings and the
hurt. Isolation, experienced by so many parents right now, is about
not being seen, and not feeling supported.
While the support
network of perinatal parents might have great ideas on how to feel
better, it often overlooks the true nature of Perinatal Mood and
Anxiety Disorders (PMADs). When one is struggling with a PMAD, advice
just doesn’t cut it. Life with a PMAD is a rollercoaster, and while
a good night’s sleep might make one feel better, there are going to
be days when life just really sucks, whatever the circumstances.
PMADs are unpredictable and exhausting.
coming to our perinatal support program feel that there is something
wrong with them. “Why am I not able to enjoy this stage of my life?
I wanted to be a parent!” “I do not even know if I really love my
baby, I’m looking forward to every minute that I can be without
them.” It is not until they join a program and talk to other
parents that they realize these feelings are more typical than they’d
ever thought. Normalizing the big feelings, and the intrusive
thoughts, is most effective in a group. Nothing beats a room nodding
and responding “me too,” when one is sharing their feelings of
hopelessness or despair. Realizing that one is not alone in feeling
one way or another, is liberating and it creates an instant
connection. It immediately makes one feel less lonely.
aren’t usually thought of as a treatment plan for PMADs, and we
would never claim it is a treatment by itself. However, we do know,
that for many participants Stork Secrets, our peer program focused on
perinatal mental health, has made a world of difference. As one
participant said: “I have used many supports throughout my
perinatal journey, however, I have found the supports and resources
offered in the peer program most supportive.”
What are peer
programs and why do they make such a difference for many new or
expecting parents? Peer programs at their core put a lot of value on
lived experience. At Stork Secrets, the peer facilitators have had
their struggles with perinatal mental health, and are willing and
able to share some of this in program. In addition, peer programs are
about meeting the needs of participants. Unlike many other programs
in the community, peer programs do not follow a set curriculum and
topics are decided upon within in the group. The facilitator is not a
leader or instructor, and responding to the needs of the participants
is crucial for the peer model to work.
At Stork Secrets
we have made the conscious decision to welcome parents with perinatal
mental health struggles from point of conception until up to two
years after birth. We understand that perinatal mental health can
affect lives of parents even beyond that, but two years seems to feel
like the most natural cut-off point for our program. We also welcome
adoptive parents, recognizing that PMADs can occur in adoptive
parents as well, just like birth parents and their partners. We also
recognize that most perinatal parents are not actively looking to get
a formal diagnosis, even though they would self-identify to be
struggling with Postpartum Anxiety, for example. Some other parents
just want the support on their perinatal mental health journey,
without labelling this as a PMAD. While a lot of Stork Secrets talks
about PMADs, we generally just refer to it as perinatal mental
health, understanding that parents are joining this program because
they are looking for support.
Can people feel
this connection and support virtually, just like they would do in
person? We recognize that online programming is not for everyone, and
confidentiality is definitely challenging online. On the other hand,
virtual programs have made our programs more accessible for parents
of very young babies and parents who have limited access to public
transportation. We also see more parents trickling in from beyond
Waterloo Region. There are both upsides and downsides to virtual
programming, but it is definitely something we will continue to
explore in the future. In recent program evaluations at Our Place,
many participants actually said that they have felt more supported
through virtual peer programs in the Pandemic, than ever before.
Who’d have thought?
How PMADs are
experienced can be very different, even if the diagnosis is the same.
Loneliness and isolation, however, is something most of the new and
expecting parents have in common. Finding safe spaces, like community
groups and peer support programs, can make a world of difference on
their road of recovery. Group-based programs offer a sounding board,
and a place to share your experiences and thoughts. It is a place
where you can hear: “Me too.” Peer workers, especially, can tell
you that PMADs are something one can overcome. It might be dark,
gloomy and anxiety-inducing right now, but you are not alone, and
there is a bright world ahead of you. It will get better, and until
then, there are others to support you.