The perinatal periods – those surrounding birth – often bring depression and anxiety for new or about-to-be mothers. Evanston-based Beyond the Baby Blues provides therapeutic support for them.
At its Central Street office, the organization offers prenatal and postpartum groups – as well as meals – several times a week. While the group is based in Evanston, Nancy Segall, one of the organization’s three founders, said women come from all over Chicago and its suburbs. “People come from Kenosha, Oak Park, the State line,” she said. “We had a woman with twins from the State line.”
Ms. Segall described a program for women in postpartum emotional distress called the Mom’s Line. “We are so fortunate to have such a resource in this community,” she said. The program, which is funded by the NorthShore University HealthSystem and the by Illinois Department of Human Services, is available to women beyond Evanston. The 24-hour, 365-day per year, service offers free confidential counseling and referrals. Ms. Segall said the program houses knowledge of resources for women from across the State.
Before Ms. Segall and her co-founders, Paula Biliter and Terri Drews, started Beyond the Baby Blues, Ms. Segall had worked with the Mom’s Line. When she checked in with them at one point, they informed her that they believed a perinatal group was needed in the community. Ms. Segall then met with Ms. Biliter and Ms. Drews and a few months later they offered their first group session.
“At first, we saw 5, 8, 9 women. Now we start new groups every 3 to 4 weeks. If you build it, they will come. There is just a huge need,” said Ms. Biliter. “When we first started, we were seeing women dealing with this alone. And we realized that there is less postpartum stigma, more prenatal – but there is also more awareness out in the world now.”
Ms. Drews added, “There are a lot of famous woman now talking about it, which helps. Brooke Shields wrote a book about it; Chrissy Teigen has shared her experience.”
The three colleagues talked about the huge transition that becoming a mother is and about how people are expected to be very joyful about it. “There is a lot of pressure for women to feel joy, but they are taking care of an infant that requires constant care. There is a societal expectation of how they should feel without a lot of support,” said Ms. Drews.
Beyond the Baby Blues has worked in that context while focusing on specific areas of perinatal depression and anxiety. They started out doing postpartum, then prenatal, then began loss groups for still birth and death that occurs shortly after birth. Now they are introducing groups for woman who have older babies and are facing issues that have not been resolved even as their babies have gotten older. They also noted that they see mothers that have a second or third child.
While they acknowledge the complexity of the spectrum of possible perinatal issues and the ongoing challenges that their clients face, they are aware of the progress that their clients make. One woman at a recent session had described having panic attacks and how she is considering medication. “It’s incredibly powerful to have other people saying that they get it. We encourage that to the degree they are comfortable that they tell their story. In that session two women said they were dealing with the same situation,” said Ms. Biliter.
The three colleagues spoke about modern American society and about extensive maternity leave in other countries, as well as models that are used to more fully support women during the perinatal period. “People may have moved away from family – so they don’t have their mother or aunt,” said Ms. Drews. “The groups alleviate isolation. They are closed once the group begins and they just see each other. They feel safe, they feel supported. They can expect that the same people will be there.”
The groups are generally six weeks in length, with one couples’ session, and are free of charge, including meals. The Beyond the Baby Blues model relies on donations from the community and foundations to provide its services. Each group is run by an experienced, respected professional and costs approximately $6,000 to run, including pre- and post-group interviews with each of the women individually.
The three colleagues explained that groups that cost participants are not as widely publicized through free avenues and are known to be less well-attended because of the barrier that costs represent. However, they acknowledge the need for funding, have added board members with business backgrounds and are working toward a multiple-year strategic plan.
Emphasizing their success rate and the extensive need for the service, they say that they wish they could bring it to more people. “The majority say they wish it would be longer,” said Ms. Segall. “The proof of our pudding is the exit interviews – the level of positive response has got to be 95% positive at least.”
Ms. Drew said, “Women leave here feeling better. Sometimes they don’t feel like their depression and anxiety are gone, but they had open conversations. They feel supported by other women and by us.” Ms. Biliter added, “I always say it’s a privilege to be part of a woman’s life.”