Written by Patty Rasmussen Wednesday, October 12 2011
Snapshot: Wendy N. Davis, executive director, Postpartum Support International
Psychologist Wendy Davis was slammed with debilitating postpartum depression (PPD) following the birth of her first child in 1994.She had no idea what was wrong even though she specializes in depression. That irony is not lost on Davis, who now serves as executive director of Postpartum Support International (PSI), a worldwide organization founded in 1987.
All of Davis’s education and training couldn’t help her; she never had a single class in dealing with perinatal mood disorders (pregnancy and postpartum depression) despite the fact that one in eight women suffers from some sort of postpartum depression. And perinatal mood disorders are no respecter of persons. Women from every culture, race, educational, or economic background can develop PPD.
Once Davis sought help and was able to recognize and accept the diagnosis, a chance phone call allowed good to arise from adversity. Living in Portland, Ore., she and a friend, Nola Cross, started Baby Blues Connection, a mom-to-mom support group for women dealing with PPD and other pregnancy-related mental health issues. Her involvement with Baby Blues Connection led to volunteering with PSI in 1997. She was hired as the organization’s first executive director in 2009.
Womenetics: Describe the mission and practical work of PSI.
Wendy Davis: We exist to promote and develop awareness, prevention, and treatment of mental health issues related to childbearing in every country, worldwide. This includes during pregnancy and pregnancy loss, as well as postpartum depression. The implementation of that mission has evolved over time as the world changes and we grow stronger and more capable. For example, where originally we were very focused on postpartum issues, research has shown us that the rates of mental health conditions and challenges in pregnancy are just as high. Now we take care to make sure we’re also talking about pregnant women even though the name is still Postpartum Support International.
Womenetics: How did you become involved in the issue of PPD?
Davis: I had my first baby in 1994 and had a big case of PPD and anxiety. I had a Ph.D. in psychology and specialized in grief, transitions, relationships, depressions, and anxiety. I had been in private practice for 14 years, and nobody had taught me about such a thing as PPD – not one class, not one course, no continuing education. I thought I was so well educated. I understood what the possibilities were around child bearing for mental health, and, yet, when I had it, I didn’t know I had PPD. I had all the symptoms; I was depressed, anxious, despairing, I couldn’t eat or sleep; I was taking good care of the baby, and I didn’t know I had depression, even though I specialized in it.
That’s because depression changes how you think; you see yourself so negatively. What I thought was going on was that I had just made a terrible mistake; that I shouldn’t be a mom and that he would be better off without me. I was just lucky to find people around me to gently suggest that I had PPD, and I had to change how I interacted with the world. I took great care of the baby, but I was suffering; I was isolated and didn’t know how to ask people for help. I was a perfectionist.
In the middle of my maternity leave and just figuring out and accepting that I had PPD, a former client called me out of the blue to tell me she was starting a mom-to-mom support group called Baby Blues Connection for women with PPD because we didn’t have anything like it in our community and we need it. She said, “You know that’s what I had when I was working with you.” She asked if I would help her, and I said I would be happy to help her and that, in fact, I had PPD. We founded the group, Baby Blues Connection, in Portland, Ore., and, after she moved out of state, I continued it.
It’s been open every single day for 17 years. When you go through something like that and come out of it, as I did, with the help of family, friends, a postpartum doula, and a good doctor, it's good to make meaning out of it.
For me as a psychologist, with a Ph.D., to not know about this -- it was in the popular culture but not in the medical (culture), not in therapy, not with midwives. We were afraid of it. I couldn’t help but devote myself to it; communities need to know, families need to know PSI’s motto: You’re not alone, you’re not to blame, and with help you will get well. Without that help, women are at risk of hurting themselves or disconnecting from their children because they think the opposite: It’s my fault, it will never change, and I’m the only one who feels this way.
Womenetics: How and when did you begin working with PSI?
Davis: About three years after I founded Baby Blues Connection, I joined PSI as a volunteer for several years then served as a volunteer coordinator for about five years. That job got bigger and bigger. Until two years ago, PSI never had an executive staff, which is when they hired me. We were an international organization with hundreds of volunteers and only one office administrator. I’ve been doing the executive director’s job since August 2009. I do that job part time and keep up my private practice part time.
Womenetics: Does PSI deal directly with women or is it a resource for other agencies, medical professionals, or organizations?
Davis: We’re the only organization that does both. We exist to train providers and support the public. We have a lot of training and educating of professionals and provide the same training, education, and social support volunteers. We have support coordinators in every state and in about 36 countries. Their job is to be a direct resource for women and their families.
Anyone who needs help – mom, dad, grandparent – can go to our website, www.postpartum.net, and click on the “Get Help” tab and a map of the states/countries will come up. They’ll find someone they can call for free, get email support, telephone support, links to referral resources. Some of our volunteers spend hours or weeks on the phone or in contact with a mom or dad as well as referring them on to a provider. That’s our direct support. It’s not clinical treatment, it’s social support, which is what we love. I can’t believe I have more than 200 volunteers who do this every day.
We have a “warm line,” too, in English and Spanish to get the same resources and encouragement in their community. It’s really near and dear to my heart that everyone listed on our website, every volunteer, offers free, informed, compassionate services over the phone or email.
Womenetics: Technology must have been a huge boon to the work and reach of PSI.
Davis: Technology has increased our capacity both for people to find us and for us to help them. Before the internet, the founder of PSI, Jane Honikman, worked hard to be able to go around the world to meet people who were doing this type of work. There were not that many. When the internet really bloomed, in the early to mid-1990s, it was a huge explosion. We had an increase in the number of people who wanted to volunteer and in the number of families seeking help.
I’ll get an email from a mom in another country or state, Egypt, Indonesia, North Dakota. So many of them sound the same, “I know something is wrong…my doctor’s told me…I found you on the internet…can you help me?” Nothing brings us more joy than receiving an email like that and knowing we do have answers. I get that email knowing that she probably sent it thinking, “No one is going to answer this.” And to be able to answer her right away is a thrill, not just for me but for all our volunteers.
Womenetics: How is PSI funded; private/public grants, or an endowment?
Davis: We are a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization funded in a couple different ways – one, membership dues; two, mostly private donations. We’ve had very, very few grants, and it’s something we need to get better at. We exist very much on the generosity of our donors and funders. During the last several years we connected with Wade Bowen, a country-western music artist. He wrote a great song called Turn on the Lights (about going through PPD with his wife, Shelby). He’s put on a yearly fundraiser, a golf tournament in Texas, and has donated all the proceeds to PSI. Third, a small part of our support comes from selling our educational DVD; we have them in English and Spanish. PSI has always been good at developing in-kind donations and the first source of that is our volunteers.
Womenetics: I’m sure PPD has been around as long as women have been giving birth, but do you think it’s more prevalent now? If so,why?
Davis: It has always been around, and it is universal but I think there is probably some increase because one of the contributing factors to PPD is stress. As the world becomes more stressful, women have more pressure on them around the childbearing time of their lives. The other important factor is that women are more isolated in becoming parents than they have ever been.
We’re more private and independent, we have our own houses – worldwide that’s become a status symbol; parents are raising babies in isolation. Mommies and babies aren’t meant to be alone all day. By the end of the day it would be natural to feel more stressed. That’s one reason rates have probably increased. The causes of perinatal mood disorder are the combination of physical, emotional, and social stresses. When you look at all that working together, for the most part it’s the social aspects that have changed.
Traditionally when women lived together in communities they’d see other women having babies, and they would see some women cry or be agitated after they had a baby. If that happened to them, they would know, sometimes that happens. But for us, we’re in our little houses. When I had my baby, I never saw anyone look anything but happy. The television commercials are all pretty. You think it’s just you.
I thought I had to do it by myself, but what I learned was that in order to survive I had depend on others, seek help. When I had my second child, three years later, I had changed completely. I asked for help when I needed it and stopped being a perfectionist about being a mom. I had no depression or anxiety. The biggest change for me was emotional and social.
Womenetics: Who or what has been your greatest inspiration?
Davis: My mom, who raised five kids, and my dad. They were both strong but modest community leaders. My dad died when I was 15, and I watched as my mom grieved, eventually remarried, and had a blended family of nine children. She went back to school and got her master’s in something called “community leadership and volunteer development.” We were all inspired by that. We all know how to work.
My dad was shy and a public figure, and I really relate to that. I am really introverted and quiet, but I’m so public now. What makes you able to be introverted and public is having a true passion to express something you think will make a difference. I want to make a difference not only for the families who contact us, but for the volunteers who want to share their gifts and experiences. That makes me public. I can’t afford to be shy because in my case of PPD, it almost killed me.
Womenetics: What skills did you bring from having your private practice to running a nonprofit organization?
Davis: I managed a business, my private practice, as a sole proprietor, getting my paperwork in on time, running it with consistency and integrity in the community. I did that for years before I went to PSI. Those were the primary skills in terms of being in management.
My communication skills and knowing about mediation, understanding relationships, and helping other people understand how to work within systems and their own internal systems are also used every day as an executive director. How do I mediate between two parties working on a project together? How do I deal with people feeling distressed or unhappy?
What I love about working with PSI is that I get to do both the human connection and the administrative. There are many skills as an executive director that I learned by volunteering and by being an entrepreneur. I didn’t go to school to learn how to give talks, for example, or give a PowerPoint presentation. I was drawn to doing it so I just learned because I wanted to learn them. My son taught me PowerPoint. My daughter taught me how to build a good website. My husband taught me how to do spreadsheets. And everyone I meet I’m asking, “What can you teach me? How can I learn from you?”
Womenetics: What do you do when you relax and spend down time?
Davis: I love my work. When you’re doing therapy you’re watching people want to grow and change and be open to new possibilities so I stay relaxed when I’m working. But somewhere along the way I learned, in yoga or in childbirth class or therapy, how to relax as completely as possible.
Part of my recovery was learning how to put everything aside and not to think about what needs to be done; just be present. Not that I have a lot of free time, but when I have it, I really am there, in that moment. I live in a beautiful state, Oregon, so I go into nature; I walk, spend time by the ocean, and hang out with my family.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD, and Blue Ridge Country.