ST. ALBANS- Amy Johnson, Parent Child Center Director at Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS) describes herself as super jazzed when she was pregnant. But when she finally gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Luna- everything changed.

For the previous nine months she knew how to protect her baby. Johnson had played by the books and done all her research. She had taken childbirth education and infant care classes, she knew how to change diapers, and how she was supposed to burp her newborn. She was prepared for rashes, and sicknesses, and felt ready to bring this tiny human into the world. But when Luna arrived, she realized there was a whole other side of parenthood that she hadn’t prepared for – the mental and emotional shift.

“When I was pregnant I had been showering with my belly to the side, so the hot water wasn’t hitting my belly when Luna was in the womb. I remember doing that after she was born, and starting to cry. When my mother asked me what was wrong I remember saying, ‘I knew how to protect her and keep her safe when she was in the womb, but I don’t know how to do it now,’” Johnson said.

For several months after Luna was born, Johnson struggled with this feeling. She would show up to doctor appointments, painting a look of a healthy baby and mother.

“I would take the postnatal depression screenings at the pediatrician’s office and I just would be like yep, yep, yep, everything’s fine, but inside I had this crippling anxiety that something bad would happen to her,” Johnson said.

Johnson was experiencing a form of postpartum depression, but she didn’t want to talk about it. She was afraid people would think she might hurt herself or her baby. What she didn’t know was that postpartum depression consists of a spectrum, of many different mood disorders, with the majority of cases being nowhere near as severe as postpartum psychosis. In fact, according to Postpartum Support International, psychosis only occurs in approximately one to two of every 1,000 births.

Thirty to 80 percent of all new mothers may experience what’s known as “baby blues”, which includes anxiety, crying, insomnia, tiredness, moodiness and sadness. When these symptoms last longer than three to ten days, the “baby blues” are then classified as postpartum depression, effecting approximately 21 percent of new mothers. Other forms of postpartum depression can take form in panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, or anxiety disorders.

These types of disorders, Johnson says, are rarely openly talked about when a woman is pregnant or considering pregnancy. She mentions the most she heard when pregnant was the “baby blues” term, which she says comes across as minimizing and benign.

“It’s imperative that families are educated on postpartum depression and other disorders, and their frequency, to aid in de-stigmatizing them and also help families recognize when to seek support.,” Johnson said. “As it is now, people often suffer in silence.”

“Even if they feel really bad or angry or not like themselves, they won’t want to say anything to anybody,” Johnson explained. “It can have serious impacts on the attachment with the child, which can have long term implications if things aren’t detected early on.”

Johnson watched it happen with herself and Luna, and wants to make sure it doesn’t happen to others. That’s why when she began her role as Parent Child Center Director at NCSS, it was her dream to start a universal postpartum care program.

That dream became a reality this summer, when the Helping Everyone Access Resources and Thrive (HEART) program was launched in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties.  The program strives to turn the curve on rates of postpartum depression, and related mood disorders, in the region as well as increase knowledge and access to quality supports and services.   

Now, any mother living in those two counties has access to home visits by a perinatal specialist certified as a postpartum doula, who is trained to help young mothers dealing with these kinds of issues.

For Johnson, it was this kind of support that helped change her life. Through her obstetrician’s office, she had access to a lactation consultant, a professional trained to provide breast-feeding support. Her simple support was what helped pull Johnson out of this postpartum cloud.

“She was really magical. I remember just looking out the window when she was coming thinking she’s going to come to save my life,” Johnson said. “That one person was so significant, and really turned the curve for me. That’s when I started thinking about what it would mean if every person had access to somebody who would come into the home and be able to support them around that process.”

Johnson describes the HEART program as a comprehensive, multi-tired system. When a mother calls to request the service, the first visit is scheduled with a perinatal specialist who brings along a HEART wellness bag, consisting of various items from baby clothes to lip balm and hand cream.  The perinatal specialist then starts a conversation with the mother, learning a bit more about what’s going on inside the home and what the family may be struggling with.

The perinatal specialist is able to provide an array of supports to families (self-care and birth recovery, household management, meal prep, newborn/sibling care, nursing support and referrals, social connections, and health and wellness coaching).  If needed, they are able to connect families with an in-home perinatal clinician. They also provide resources and information to help the new mother and baby become better connected to the community, including various support groups run by the Parent Child Center of NCSS.

“The big piece of it is that social isolation,” Johnson said of postpartum depression. “It’s so easy to get disconnected. In a region that’s pretty rural, and where transportation is a major barrier, that isolation is really compounding how they are feeling.”

The HEART program provides gas cards or bus cards to help families get where they need to go to find those connections and get plugged into these support systems.

These services can go as far as multiple visits, or the mother can choose to just have that one initial visit. The program isn’t just for mother’s experiencing their first child.

“It’s supporting the first, second or as many kids as somebody has, and even adoptive parents. They are all going to go through the struggle too, your life really changes,” Johnson said.

HEART also supports caregivers who have had a baby taken into custody, as well as those who have experienced a perinatal loss.

For mothers who may be interested in signing up, all they have to do is call, text or email Jess Graff at (802)-777-8239 or jgraff@ncssinc.org, or they can call NCSS directly and ask about the HEART program.

Anybody can call and ask questions, Johnson said adding that postpartum depression doesn’t discriminate.

“It can be anybody, and there’s a whole group of people who aren’t able to access these types of services, and I want to be able to support all families,” Johnson said. “This is all about having the people with the heart and care to wrap you in the support, because that’s what it takes. It’s somebody that cares about you and wants to make sure you and your baby are doing well.”