There is probably no question I am asked more often by moms than, “How long does postpartum depression last?” “How long will I have postpartum anxiety?” Suffering moms are seeking the exact date when the box will be delivered to their door with their old self inside of it.
“Is it 4 months? 12 months? I heard so-and-so got better by 5 months postpartum, and I’m 10 months postpartum and I’m still miserable, so does this mean I’m a lost cause?”
I actually looked this up in my library of PPD books, and searched online, and couldn’t find a single citation of the exact amount of time it takes to recover from postpartum depression and related illnesses. That’s because there isn’t one! There are many different variables affecting how long it takes each person to get better.
1. How long did you suffer from PPD before you reached out for treatment?
Most moms with postpartum depression will fully recover, especially if the illness is diagnosed and treated early. It stands to reason that the longer you wait to get help, the longer it may take for you to get better. Some research has found that the rapid remission of depressive symptoms is the most important predictor for the favorable long-term outcome of a depressive episode. (Scadoczky et al,Journal of Affective Disorders, 2004) In simpler words, the quicker you are treated and the more effective the treatment is, the better result. So, ask yourself, when was it that you finally started on an effective treatment?
2. How severe is your postpartum mental illness?
The more severe your postpartum depression symptoms or postpartum anxiety symptoms, the longer it may take for you to get better. A 2002 study found that more severe depression was associated with a decreased likelihood of early recovery. (Meyers et al,Archives of General Psychiatry, 2002) NOTICE, that doesn’t say decreased likelihood of recovery, just decreased likelihood of early recovery. It makes sense: the worse your symptoms are, the longer it might take to get back to normal. Just know that you WILL get there.
3. How effective is the postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety treatment you have been using?
Some women receive treatment that isn’t particularly effective, so they don’t get better. There are a variety of reasons why this might be the case. There are different kinds of therapies (cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, group therapy, etc.), and different kinds of medications (serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, tricyclics, antipsychotics, etc.), different kinds of self-care methods (light therapy, exercise, yoga, supplements, etc.) and even different kinds of support groups (new mom groups, PPD groups that allow moms to bring their babies, PPD groups that don’t allow babies, freewheeling groups and groups with specific agendas at each meeting). It has been proved time and time again that, in the arena of mental health, what works for one person does not always work for another.
In the book “This Isn’t What I Expected”, Karen Kleiman writes, “If you haven’t met your goals or if you are actually getting worse instead of better, it is time to consider a change in treatment or a consultation …” If what you’ve been doing isn’t working, work with your healthcare professional to try something different. Or seek a different professional entirely. We have a list of PPD specialists who have more experience helping moms with PPD. The key is this: Don’t give up. There IS something that will work for you.
By the way, some people actually have treatment-resistant depression.According to the Mayo Clinic, you may have treatment-depression if standard treatments don’t help much or don’t help at all. It can be caused by significant emotional stress, by not taking medications exactly as prescribed, or by other underlying health problems you may have like thyroid disorder, heart problems or substance abuse. Another possibility, if you happen to be on meds, is that your body metabolizes medication more quickly or more slowly than most people. The Mayo Clinic states that you should make sure you’re being treated by a mental health professional (not just your regular doctor), be patient and be willing to try different methods of treatment. This may include different types of therapy, different medications, trying a sleep and exercise program, or newer treatments like vagus nerve stimulation or trans-cranial magnetic stimulation.
4. How effective is the postpartum depression specialist you are working with?
We sometimes make the mistake of assuming the people in the “white coats” know more than we do, so we go along and don’t speak up for ourselves when we know we aren’t getting better despite following the treatment recommendations. It could be that the doctor you’re working with has limited knowledge and experience in the area of perinatal mental health, and has already tried whatever method they know how to use. If you’re in therapy, perhaps the method they are using just doesn’t work for you or the therapist just isn’t a good fit for your personality. If you’re on medication, perhaps they’ve given you too low of a dose, or something that has side effects you can’t stand, or something that flat out doesn’t work. This may be because they aren’t psychiatric specialists, or because they don’t know enough about the medications. Or, perhaps you are in a support group that just doesn’t make you feel comfortable or supported.
You MUST speak up about how you’re feeling and how the treatment plan you are on is, or is not, affecting your symptoms. You must talk about how you feel in the doctor’s or therapist’s office and whether you feel you are being heard and understood. If the healthcare professional you’re working with isn’t willing to try something else or isn’t willing to listen to you, there is another out there who will. Again, Kleiman writes “Treatment failure is not necessarily the fault of the therapist [or doctor]. ‘Good’ therapists often need to change treatment modalities or consider new options when [the treatment] doesn’t have the desired outcome.”
Sometimes, though, you may have just gone to the wrong person for you. That’s okay. You have every right to make a change.
5. What is your current life situation and how may it be affecting your recovery from postpartum depression?
Getting professional help is crucial, but your doctor or therapist can’t come home with you and ensure that your environment is the right one for recovery. If you are in a situation where the people around you are not supportive or you’re not getting any help so that you can have rest and good nutrition, this could slow down your process. If your partner, for instance, doesn’t believe postpartum depression or anxiety or psychosis are real, or isn’t willing to help you get the right amount of sleep or give you help around the house, the resulting stress of that can make it harder for you to get better faster. A study on the role of support from family and friends in recovery from major depression found that emotional support is significantly associated with depression outcome. (Nasser, Acta Scandinavia Psyciatrica, 2004)
As much as you can, reach out to those who are supportive when you need to talk. Ask your most reliable and encouraging family members or friends to pitch in, or maybe reach out to a local moms group or PPD support group for help. If you can’t find local help, you can at least find virtual emotional support from people who know what you’re going through here at Postpartum Progress. We have a private forum for moms who don’t have access to in-person support groups. It’s free to join and totally private.
6. What have you been doing to follow your postpartum depression treatment plan and take care of yourself?
In the end, no doctor can make you show up for appointments. Therapy will fail if you don’t open up to your therapist and aren’t willing to try some of the coping techniques your counselor suggests you try. No medication will work if you don’t take it, or you only take it some days. No support group will help if you don’t attend. Poor sleep and lack of nutrition can prevent anybody from being healthy. Remember that you need to take a key role in your recovery process. I know it’s hard. I know you feel like crap. I also know that you can dig deep down and do this. Taking care of yourself and making your health a priority is the best gift you can give to both you and your baby.
One final note: Once you start to feel better, and you will, the Mayo Clinic suggests that, “It’s important to continue treatment after you begin to feel better … Stopping treatment too early may only lead to a relapse.” Don’t quit the minute you feel like things are turning the corner. Work with your healthcare professional to decide when it’s the right time to slowly wean off your treatment plan.