Cuddling her newborn son, Juana Witty looked into the camera and made her plea: “Postpartum depression is real. I didn’t know I had it, but I could use some friends.”
The mother uploaded her message to TikTok in early June, and since then, it has received more than three million views. Tens of thousands have commented on the video, leaving words of commiseration and support. “Just know you’re not alone and it’s ok to put the baby down somewhere safe and take a minute,” one user wrote. “TikTok is here for you,” another chimed in.
Witty’s transparency about her postpartum depression is likely helpful for her fellow mothers and moms-to-be, according to Chris Raines, the board chairperson and chapters chair of Postpartum Support International.
“The moms who are doing that are absolutely incredibly strong,” Raines said, speaking of Witty and others who have spoken openly about their postpartum mental health. “It is much more helpful to be able to see the reality of it than it is to have a candy-coated version.”
But moms are much more likely to run into that candy-coated version on social media than Witty’s tearful honesty. This truth raises a question: Is social media helpful to new mothers? From Raines’ perspective, it does offer some benefits. But polished presentations and dangerous disinformation are so pervasive that she encourages mothers to evaluate what they see whenever they log on.
Social media and the “stigma of perfection”
Raines has practiced as a perinatal psychiatric nurse practitioner for more than 15 years. When she discusses social media with patients, she emphasizes the fact that someone’s online presence rarely reflects real life. “There’s a level of perfectionism that comes across,” Raines said. “People are going to present on Facebook what they want to present.”
One mother’s softly lit, kindly angled, gently filtered selfie may cause another mom to question her self-worth or performance as a parent, especially if she’s already struggling with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which are related to symptoms that appear during pregnancy and up to one year postpartum, Raines said. Such posts may perpetuate what Raines called “the stigma of perfection.”
“It can be really detrimental and harmful to moms who are in that cycle of anxiety by trying to emulate what they see online when that’s not the reality,” she says.
In some instances, it may benefit mothers to avoid social media altogether. “As a healthcare provider,” Raines said, “I will tell patients to stay off of social media when they’re in the crux of their illness. It’s not helpful.”
Knowledge is power, but it has to be reliable
New mothers need to scrutinize online information as much as they do pictures and videos, Raines said. It’s easy for new mothers to pick up their phones and listen to a podcast or scroll through Instagram while nursing a baby. But the information they digest may not be as reliable as what they could get from a professional, Raines said.
Women need sound information—not only about their babies, but about their own mental health. “Knowledge is power,” Raines said. Information has the power to normalize mood and anxiety disorders and equip people—mothers, fathers, families and friends—to recognize and treat them. They are the most common complication of pregnancy and postpartum, she said. Despite this, “it’s not talked about.”
Social media can be a powerful tool to spread facts about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Postpartum Support International, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as a resource for women, uses social media extensively and moderates more than 20 online groups.
Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have helped Raine’s organization to spread good information about mental health issues women face during pregnancy and after childbirth. By moderating groups, Postpartum Support International can connect people facing common problems and continue to ensure the information shared is reliable, Raines said. “Anxiety disorders have been in the shadows for a long time. There’s been a lot of myth, a lot of stigma,” she noted. “We want to make sure we offer a platform that offers evidence-based information.”
Raines encouraged new mothers to vet the information they find on social media. “If you get information via social media that is not professionally run—or even if it is—get a second opinion,” she said. This step is even more important for moms who are struggling with anxiety or any other mood disorder. Moms in such situations may “reach for whatever they can find to help,” Raines said. “I would tell anybody to find at least two trusted sources that are telling you the same thing.”
Moms and others can get information, support, and resources about postpartum health by calling Postpartum Support International’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-944-4773. In an emergency, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.