This month we are focusing on mental health in academia, and today we have a heart-wrenching talk with Amanda Gorham a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Amanda experienced postpartum depression (PPD) after giving birth to her children and, in both cases, due to the stigma associated with PPD, Amanda was not able to find anyone willing to share their story of struggle or recovery. Amanda is connecting with moms at www.findamomlikeme.com to inform the development of an improved screening tool for detecting postpartum depression in new moms. If the interview brings up issues and you need someone to talk to, please reach out to your local crisis line (international listings provided).
Q1. Tell us a bit about your work and family.
I’m a mom of two and a PhD student, studying Research, Educational Measurement and Psychometrics. I, myself, am 27 years old, as is my husband. Prior to starting my doctoral work, I held a job as the assessment coordinator for a large urban district in Massachusetts for five years. My son was three months old when I was accepted into the doctoral program and I began my studies when he was just shy of a year old. He’s now two-and-a-half years old and my daughter, who is now nine months old, was born during the summer (July) before my second year of school.
My husband is a full-time firefighter. He is incredibly supportive of my studies and of our family.
Q2. What is your experience with post-partum depression?
I experienced postpartum depression with both of my children, but it was mild and manageable with my son. So much so that I was able to hide it and was never diagnosed. I went back to work very early (2 weeks postpartum) and pushed myself harder than I should have because I was worried about the stigma associated with postpartum mood disorders. I felt I needed to keep up with those around me so that no one would suspect I was “incapable” as a mom.
When I had my daughter, I was in a state of euphoria for the first two weeks, even with my new identity as a mom of two children under two. At three weeks postpartum, things started to change, but I didn’t notice on my own. No one else noticed either, as my husband returned to work—13 consecutive days of working, 12 hours a day. It was toward the end of this period, my fifth week postpartum, that everything took a very dark, very dangerous turn.
My depression hit me hard and suddenly. I was irritable in a way I’ve never experienced before. I had intrusive thoughts about my children and debilitating panic attacks became a frequent occurrence. I felt like I was dying; like my heart was failing. It wasn’t until I almost took my own life that I realized I needed help. It was difficult to explain this to the people around me, and I had a very uncomfortable and ineffective experience seeking treatment from my health care provider, but I did eventually get the care I needed. I was astounded at my inability to get the support I needed, even as a well-educated amply-informed woman.
Q3. What do you feel are the major challenges in dealing with post-partum depression when working or studying in academic settings? And do you have any suggestions for addressing these challenges?
The climax of my struggle with postpartum depression took place a week before the fall semester started. I was admitted into the psychiatric emergency department of the hospital. One week later, I went back to school because I couldn’t let this pull me away from my work, but I didn’t tell anyone I was struggling significantly. I was afraid. I was worried my assistantship would be taken from me or professors would change the expectations they had for me if they knew. I didn’t feel safe and the silence I was keeping caused me to suffer even more.
When I returned to school at the start of the semester, no one asked me how I was doing, having just had a baby seven weeks prior. I tried to blend in, as I always had, because being a mom meant I had a life outside of my studies and that made me feel less-than.
Around the middle of the semester I came to a place where I was so anxious and depressed that I couldn’t complete one of my exams. I had no choice but to risk everything and tell my professor. I started with just one professor. Luckily, this individual met me with support and referred me to the on-campus mental health services. I felt like there was hope!
The biggest challenge for me was maintaining my reputation, trying to “keep up” with students who weren’t moms and certainly weren’t suffering in the way that I was. Next to that, finding help was outrageously complicated.
As a mom trying to care for children and attend school full time (because I didn’t make enough with my assistantship to put my children in childcare), I couldn’t attend weekly appointments with a therapist. I also couldn’t afford this type of treatment, which I so badly needed (again, money). Finding out that there were free services available to me on campus seemed too good to be true! And it was. When I called the office, I was told that the center was already serving the maximum number of students for the semester. They could refer me to somewhere in the community, but again, I would have to pay.
I was stuck. I didn’t fit into any of the molds. I felt different and unserviceable. Because I was.
To be a part of fixing this would be a dream. I firmly believe that mothers can have a better quality of academic life with the implementation of the following supports:
1. Guaranteed meeting with mental health professional (trained in maternal mental health) upon returning to school after having a baby—free!
2. The following communication sent to all “new” moms: “Congratulations. We understand that having a baby is a major life change and can impact many areas of your life, including your academic pursuits. The University understands that maternal mental health is the most common complication for new mothers and we are here to support you! The [mental health services] at the University would like to invite you to schedule an appointment with them to check in, make sure you’re getting the support you need, and assist in any way possible during this transitional time. This is at no cost to you as a student! You may contact _____ to schedule an appointment, but at any time, you can feel encouraged to contact ______ in your academic building for guidance, support, and resources. To learn more about your rights as a new mom, please visit _____.”
3. Training in maternal mental health for graduate school faculty and staff
Q4. Do you have suggestions or tips for people suffering from post-partum depression (or for their supporters) on: a) accessing professional help and support at work or home? and b) approaching supervisors/mentors at work to discuss the issue and access support?
I would strongly suggest for any mom experiencing a maternal mental health issue to connect with a support person. Ideally, this connection would be formed prior to giving birth, but moms should absolutely have someone to check in with on a regular basis while re-entering academia or work. If I could go back and do it again, I would have asked my advisor what my rights and options were if I experienced a postpartum mood disorder. I would have been prepared and could have had a conversation about a stigmatized condition before I was experiencing the condition and the stigma myself.
When I did approach my professor, and eventually my advisor, I did so in writing. I felt if gave me control of the conversation. I had the ability to discuss my needs to the extent that I felt comfortable. And if anything did go wrong (i.e., discrimination), I would have a written record of all communications. This is the one thing that I would do again if I were ever to be in a similar situation.
When communicating in writing, I made sure to mention the progress I had made in my program, before and after having the baby. I also made sure to include information about maternal mental health. Not everyone has experience with this and I made it my responsibility to education my professors in what I was experiencing (objectively) and on how they could support me.
Q5. Are there any other organisational structures or policies that you believe would enable parents suffering from post-partum depression to feel supported and succeed at work/study in academia?
I truly feel that, as mothers, we are treated differently in the world of academia. Many times, even outside of my experience with postpartum depression, I experienced conversations that made it very clear that I was a woman who “made her bed” and had to lay in it. Like choosing to advance my education AND have children needed to involve some sort of consequences.
One month after returning to school—that’s 11 weeks postpartum and 4 weeks post-diagnosis of PPD—I was expected to attend a conference out of state for multiple days. I remember feeling so irritated that I had to leave my infant AND toddler for those days (because I couldn’t possibly manage bringing two children to a conference on my own). But I remember distinctly being far more upset that I was suffering so profoundly and if I had refused to go, I would have been penalized (conference attendance is a requirement in my program). I attended that conference with a weighted blanket and had to spend each afternoon in a hotel room trying to compose myself through the frequent panic attacks.
What universities don’t understand is that these “extra” expectations require mothers to swap schedules, arrange childcare, prep meals in advance, pump extra milk for babies, coordinate with extended family, and struggle to find money for childcare on top of the other expenses. Even now, though I’m recovering from my depression, I am functioning healthily with a certain amount of stress. And the “extra” things have put me over the edge several times in the past academic year, significantly impacting my progress.
A woman who has the courage to raise children and advance her education simultaneously should be celebrated. And accommodated. Especially when her mental health is so vulnerable.
Any parent who is eligible for family leave under federal policy should be entitled to a reduced workload in academic settings. Elimination of “extra” requirements could create the opportunity to stay on track, graduate on time, and start earning a legitimate salary for so many parents.
Q6. What are the organisational structures or policies that you believe prevent suffers of post-partum depression to feel supported and succeed at work/study in academia and how might these be addressed?
As I already alluded to, in my experience, being a mom does not fit into the mold of higher education. I’m never available enough, I’m never answering my emails frequently enough, I’m never working during daytime hours when I’m not in class, and I can’t typically be handed a huge project that needs to be completed “right now”. I’m seen differently by the students and by the faculty and I’m constantly in a mode of proving myself.
As a sufferer of postpartum depression, my learning became even more distinct from my peers. I began recording audio of my lectures so that I could go back and try to piece them together, often having to leave class to suffer a panic attack without attracting attention. I was staying up later and later because my assignments were taking me three times longer than usual with the anxiety I was feeling. I felt like my strain to cross the finish line was making my symptoms worse in a major way. The first thing that was prescribed to me when I was diagnosed with postpartum depression was “get more sleep.”
Unfortunately, the barriers that I faced are not that distinct from the struggles of many students who are unique in one way or another. The system didn’t serve me, but I would argue to say that it doesn’t serve most women of my age. It becomes an issue of “do I have children, or do I go to school” for many. Which is terribly sad. Becoming a mother is an incredible life change. And no woman should feel like she has to either stop out of school or burn midnight oil to try and keep up, working five times harder than everyone else just to be looked at as less-than anyway, just because she made the courageous, admirable, and natural decision to birth and raise children.
I dream of a day when there is a “mother-focused model”. An academic trajectory that allows mothers to complete their degrees at the same time as their non-mother peers by adjusting the course-level requirements and program-level expectations. A program model that allows mothers to complete assignments that are more efficient, protects against assignment of “last minute” or “all-nighter” projects, and allows mothers to conference in to classes virtually if ever needed.
Q7. Do you have any other comments?
I am very fortunate to belong to a program that is more supportive of families than many. The adversity I experienced was largely at the university level and, unfortunately, I would guess you could find a story like mine anywhere. I hope, one day, we will see the world of academia develop into a field that considers supporting all the facets that make up each student as central to the mission of the organization.
To connect with Amanda:
If the interview has brought up issues and you need someone to talk to, please reach out to your local crisis line (international listings provided).