There I was, three weeks postpartum and nursing my new baby, and something did not feel right.
My pregnancy had been difficult and my labor traumatic, and given that I have struggled with anxiety and stress in the past, I knew the odds were against me in avoiding postpartum mental health challenges. When I finally went to my first postpartum doctor’s visit, I heard the words I had feared most: postpartum anxiety.
In that moment, I thought I understood what that meant, but in hindsight, I did not know that my diagnosis would challenge me in ways I did not think were possible.
As a legal recruiter, I know that being a practicing attorney is one of the most demanding and stressful professions. In February 2016, the Journal of Addiction Medicine published research showing that lawyers suffer with mental health symptoms at rates higher than other professionals. In a survey of almost 13,000 attorneys, 28% suffer with depression, 19% with anxiety and 23% with stress at varying levels.
It is also commonly known that women who are experiencing or have experienced symptoms of mental health disorders in the past are at greater risk of developing a perinatal mood disorder. Given the prevalence of mental health concerns in the legal profession, one can only infer that the number of women experiencing perinatal mood disorders in law is even higher than in other professions.
In the hallways of a law firm, there is not much discussion about these struggles, and women attorneys are expected to handle the challenges in silence with grace and to continue working with very little support or understanding.
The reality is that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, like postpartum depression, are the most common complication of pregnancy—nearly 20% of women during pregnancy and the postpartum year are affected. But most women’s insight into perinatal mood disorders are the result of a handout and quick discussion with a nurse when they leave the hospital after giving birth.
This cursory information is not nearly enough.
Due to the lack of understanding that perinatal mood disorders are incredibly common, many do not even realize what they are experiencing. Women who develop issues like postpartum depression and anxiety can suffer for years if left untreated. This lack of treatment can affect every aspect of their personal and professional lives. Countless triggers, from weaning off breastfeeding to managing stress at work, can push hormonally vulnerable women into a tailspin.
It’s time for the legal profession to wake up to the reality that poor parental leave practices, a stressful work environment and the legal industry’s failure to address serious mental health concerns create a merciless environment for those suffering from postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders.The challenges of birth do not end when a woman’s parental leave ends, and it’s time for law firms to adapt proactive measures to protect women’s health.
Education, Understanding, Treatment
Law firms, well-equipped with resources and expertise, can serve a key role in educating, supporting and assisting women so they can get proper treatment.
First and most importantly, law firms cannot assume that women experiencing perinatal mood disorders will actively seek help. They may worry that revealing their symptoms to their firms could lead to repercussions at work. Some may not even recognize that they are experiencing symptoms of a mood disorder.
Firms can take steps as simple as providing information once they are notified of a pregnancy and when coming back to work or as comprehensive as forming a support group for new and expecting mothers and bringing in a clinician to moderate. Law firms also need to educate partners and associates to ensure that they have an informed understanding of the signs and symptoms of perinatal mood disorders and be empowered to make referrals for service and treatment.
While identifying a perinatal mood disorder can be self-diagnosed, discovered during a doctor’s visit or determined through depression and anxiety screening, having access to information at work, where an attorney spends most of her time, increases the likelihood that she will seek treatment. A federal initiative called Moms’ Mental Health Matters (MMHM) provides free educational content and resources that can be utilized to support attorneys during this critical time in their lives.
Treatment for perinatal mood disorders generally includes psychotherapy, medication or both, and teams need to be prepared to make accommodations for doctor’s visits and days off for treatment without penalizing women for taking care of their mental health. In fact, working mothers are protected by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the American Disabilities Act (ADA) as postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders are classified as pregnancy-related disabilities. Under these laws, women can be entitled to extended unpaid leave or workplace accommodations. Trimmed.
Part of my own treatment of postpartum anxiety was joining a support group of women from all walks of life, including a labor and delivery nurse. However, even with these programs, treatment cannot begin without awareness that there is something to treat in the first place. The light at the end of the tunnel is that perinatal mood disorders are the most treatable and curable mental health issues if proper treatment is received.
Law firms—with an educated partnership and equipped with resources from reputable initiatives like MMHM and others—can play a critical role by facilitating all stages of education, accommodation and treatment. Firms that adapt such initiatives have the distinction of truly taking care of their people.
We do not have to suffer alone. Perinatal mood disorders do not discriminate, and no woman is immune regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, career, education, race, age or mental health history. Women should talk openly about their experiences without fear of judgment, and law firms should provide an environment that welcomes these conversations.
My own experience of postpartum anxiety shattered me into a thousand pieces, but recognizing that I was suffering, finding the support I needed and working hard every day has allowed me to start picking up those pieces and put myself back together.