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Are Postpartum Depression and Caregiver Stress Similar?

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After Connor was born, I had postpartum depression (PPD). I remember wanting desperately to escape from my home, to get in my car and just drive and drive until I was far away and alone.

 I’m sorry. That was a rather abrupt beginning, without a proper introductory paragraph. But that’s rather what postpartum is, an abrupt state of being without any proper or formal introduction. You wake up one morning and it’s just there, like a collar placed around your neck, just one notch too tight.

 I remember sitting and nursing with Connor for over an hour at a time. When he’d finally had enough and drifted off to sleep, I’d put him in his crib and steal away like a thief, eager for a quick shower or a simple sandwich. More often than not, he would awaken and begin crying within 5 minutes of being put down. The crying…it was like shards of glass in my brain. The sound set my nerves jangling and my adrenaline pumping like I was in fight or flight mode. I stopped feeling human. I felt like a thing, something to which this tiny screaming baby would forever be latched onto.

 One afternoon, I remember vividly standing on the second floor landing, looking over the railing…

 But I won’t finish that thought, that sentence. I won’t commit it to writing or utter the words aloud because it would be breathing life into a memory that should stay dead. Is it fear, or maybe shame? Or perhaps it’s the refusal to acknowledge the shell of myself that I’d become, unrecognizable to me now.

 There was no judgment. Not from my husband or my doctor. In fact, my doctor was extraordinarily understanding and helpful. He assured me it wasn’t my fault and he could help me with medication. There were so many resources available to me, and I was grateful. And I was fortunate that, for me, postpartum depression ended up being mild. I can’t help but wonder what a more severe case of PPD feels like, yet I’m frightened by the thought.

 The Mayo Clinic explains on their site that PPD is caused by physical changes (hormones, metabolism), emotional factors (sleep deprivation), and lifestyle influences (a demanding baby, difficulty breast-feeding).  PPD is widely recognized as a legitimate disorder and much effort has gone into awareness and education about PPD, as well as resources for new mothers. If you or someone you know is affected by postpartum depression,  please contact your doctor right away. Here is a guide that helps identify symptoms as well as providing tips for help and support.

The reason I’m bringing up PPD is because of the similarities I see between it and caregiver stress and burnout. Parents of special needs children are not just parents, they are caregivers. Whether your child has autism, Down Syndrome, or another disability, the support needs can sometimes be exhaustive. If you happen to have a child that also struggles with serious aggression, your stress and responsibilities may seem all-consuming.

 Unfortunately, there is not as much understanding for families living with serious aggression and finding resources can be challenging. Like PPD, there can be physical changes (brain chemistry), emotional factors (sleep deprivation), and lifestyle influences (a child with major support needs) that occur when living in that environment. Although caregiver stress has not been assigned a medical label or a publicity campaign to bring awareness to it, the effects of providing care to a child with severe challenges is very much like PPD. Ongoing stress can have a significant and long-lasting effect on the mental health of a caregiver.

 Like PPD, you should seek out as much support as you can. Certainly it’s a good idea to see your own physician, but also finding community organizations that can help provide support to your child. This link provides symptoms and support tips for caregivers.

 It is my hope that caregiver stress will someday be seen as every bit as valid as postpartum depression. But more than that, I hope we get to a place where resources and support are just as readily available to special needs families as they are to mothers suffering from PPD.

The next time you hear someone say “there is never a good reason to harm a child”, agree with them. Agree with them because there is nothing “good” about PPD or caregiver burnout, and certainly nothing “good” about harming a child. You can also remind them that the reason doesn’t have to be “good” to be valid, nor does it have to be “good” to be worthy of creating interventions to prevent it from happening to another child.

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