Kimberly Barnard-Bracey turned to a small group of women inside a room at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center on a recent weekday afternoon.
“So what’s the topic this week?” said Barnard-Bracey, a licensed clinical social worker. “What’ve you guys got going on?”
Ashley Beer, holding her 7-month-old son, Travis, launched into a story of how she snapped at her husband recently — she was feeling overwhelmed as tasks like cleaning started to add up.
“When my kid was that age, I couldn’t even get out of the house,” said Jessica Limon, 25. “I’m terrified to go through it all again but . . . I’ll have a support system. That makes all the difference in the world.”
The intimate setting was a postpartum support group for military mothers, both service members and spouses. As the new moms chatted, their toddlers ran around the room, pushing water bottles off the table, crawling under chairs and stumbling over their mothers’ feet.
It’s one of many local support groups to which the nonprofit Postpartum Support Virginia connects women struggling with postpartum depression and other perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. The organization, which also recently launched a Maternal Mental Health Coalition in the area, aims to change the conversation around postpartum depression.
“It’s not just postpartum. It’s not just depression,” said Adrienne Griffen, the founder of Postpartum Support Virginia. “It’s so much more than that.”
Limon, whose husband is stationed at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, started coming to the group after experiencing deep anxiety and depression with the birth of her son Nixon, now 1 1/2 years old. She said she’d never before experienced those symptoms and was afraid to admit them during and after the pregnancy.
“I wasn’t upfront and honest,” Limon said. “It was just easier for me to lie and just kind of push through it and try and handle things on my own. But I realized I wasn’t OK when I just truly felt like I could walk out the front door and my husband was better off without me, my child was better off without me.”
She added that even in the hospital “after I had my son, I wanted to leave the hospital without him. I was just like, over it. And for me to say that now, it’s heart-wrenching because I couldn’t imagine my life without him.”
The military adds particular stress, she added: “Everything is so inconsistent. You can’t be on your own time, you can’t really make plans. . . . Nothing is set in stone.”
She likes the consistency of the group meetings — every Thursday at 2 p.m. — and the continued support and understanding of fellow military moms. They often call each other and recently attended the first birthday party of Isaiah, son of 31-year-old Petty Officer 3rd Class Kayla Disbrow.
Shauna Hibbler-Cooley holds Travis Beer and talks to her own son Nathan, right, during a meeting of a postpartum support group at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Portsmouth, Va. In the background are Ashley Beer, Travis’ mom, and Kayla Disbrow. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Barnard-Bracey, who’s led the support group for years, said it’s common to see women who feel that they’re the only ones who have experienced such feelings.
“The No. 1 complication with childbirth is depression,” she tells her patients. “They’re like, ‘really?’ I’m like, ‘really.’ . . . It’s important for them to know they’re not by themselves, and knowing that you’re going to get better. We know what (postpartum depression) is, and we know what makes it better.”
That includes therapy, medication or both, Barnard-Bracey said.
In Newport News last month, a few dozen therapists, nurses and health department officials — all women — convened at Riverside Regional Medical Center for the first meeting of the Peninsula Maternal Mental Health Coalition.
Griffen, leading the meeting held by Postpartum Support Virginia, asked who had experienced postpartum depression. Nearly half raised their hands.
“This is often the first time a woman deals with mental illness,” read a Powerpoint slide as Griffen flipped through a presentation.
The coalition, launched with a $26,000 grant from the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters Foundation, trains local caregivers to screen better for symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
“We don’t talk about it. We let women fall off the cliff into anxiety and depression, and then we expect them to recognize that something’s wrong, have courage to raise their hand and try to navigate the system when they’re at their lowest,” Griffen said. “It’s totally backwards.”
Instead, she said, doctors should ask questions at the outset. They should make women feel safe in sharing the feelings that sometimes accompany these disorders, such as the desire to harm one’s baby or self.
Griffen, who lives in Northern Virginia, knows these thoughts well. Though her first baby was “very easy,” after the second she soon felt like “I was falling apart.”
“I was very angry, irritable, overwhelmed. I could barely keep it together,” she said. “I knew right away that something was wrong.”
She reached out to her OB-GYN, a psychiatrist and her health maintenance organization, but she didn’t feel heard. The former offered a prescription without question, while the latter threatened to call child protective services. Griffen left the experience traumatized, but a seed was planted to use it to help others.
She wants Postpartum Support Virginia to dispel the stigma around the conditions and get mothers help from the start.
“Every woman who goes through this says, ‘I feel like the worst mother in the world.’ . . . All we want to know is we’re not alone.”
Olivia Price, a doula and childbirth educator who’s leading the Peninsula coalition, said one thing they’ve noticed in the region so far is “addressing race and how it plays a role in perinatal mood disorders.”
“Women of color are more susceptible to poor health outcomes related to childbirth — physical, but mental as well,” Price said. “What we’ve found is we have a lot more participation by women of color . . . speaking up and sharing their experience. That’s a big benefit to us.”
She said local hospitals have been open to change but it’s a matter of persistence. She wants the coalition to be that in-between, connecting women to providers and providers to information.
“It’s just a thing that hasn’t been addressed as a central issue,” Price said.
Limon, who lives in Norfolk, said she continues going to the Portsmouth support group in part to be a source of guidance for other new mothers.
“When I felt super anxiety-ridden and depressed, I felt like I wasn’t enough, like I could’ve walked out the front door and (my family) would be so much better without me,” she said. “But no matter what your state is physically, emotionally, mentally: You’re enough. . . . I wish that I’d had someone telling me that.”