Mental Health Matters for NICU Parents

parent sitting on bench looking out over water in yellow raincoat, NICU mental health

When you have a baby in the NICU, stress is unavoidable.

There will be days that you feel worried, anxious, fearful, and overwhelmed. That’s completely normal, but that doesn’t mean you should try to handle these feelings alone. And it may leave you wondering, is the NICU impacting my mental health?

The NICU experience is a BIG DEAL. It’s a life-changing twist, and many families need help coping with the stress and sadness of having a sick or premature infant.

Personally, I think every NICU mom and dad could benefit from at least a few counseling or therapy sessions. After all, this is uncharted territory for your family, and professional guidance can be incredibly helpful as you navigate your “new normal” and the reality of the NICU.

Even if you choose not to schedule proactive counseling sessions, I want you to be on the lookout for the warning signs that the stress is getting to be too much.

You need to keep yourself healthy, both mentally and physically, and if you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, I encourage you to reach out to your doctor, counselor, or even your baby’s NICU nurse. They’ve seen this before, and they can point you towards helpful mental health resources.

It’s time to get a helping hand if you’re feeling:

Completely Overwhelmed

There are going to be times that you feel overwhelmed as a NICU parent, and that’s not always cause for concern. But if every day leaves you feeling that you have too many tasks or issues to cope with, or if you find yourself unable to stop, slow down, rest, practice mindful meditation, or even breathe- that’s a sign that the overwhelm is taking over.

Fatigue

Tired is one thing. You’re going to be tired, but if you feel exhausted to the point that you cannot get out of bed or function, your body is telling you that the stress of the NICU is becoming too much.

Disproportionate Anger or Rage

Please note that I said, “disproportionate.” You’re going to feel angry sometimes! Why wouldn’t you? This is not what you had planned for your family and it sure as heck isn’t fair! But if you find that your anger doesn’t pass, seems extreme for the situation, or that it’s leading you to have thoughts of harming yourself or others, it’s time to get some help managing it.

Anxious and Intrusive Thoughts

Once again, anxiety is part of the NICU territory, but I’m talking about extreme anxiety that consumes your thoughts for hours on end or leads to physical symptoms like panic attacks, high blood pressure, or difficulty breathing.

Hopelessness or Apathy

Feeling hopeless from time to time is COMPLETELY normal, especially after a setback, but we start to worry when we see NICU moms and/or NICU dads feel no hope, or motivation, or have no hope for their future. These are common signs of depression, and it’s important to seek help so it doesn’t get worse.

 Social Withdrawal

Chances are, you don’t feel like throwing a party right now, and that’s just fine- but you do need a strong support system. If you find yourself withdrawing from the people closest to you, or if you feel isolated, or unable to be around others, we want you to reach out and let us know that you’re struggling.

The NICU journey is hard, but when you’re struggling with your mental health it can feel absolutely impossible. If you’re experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, there is help at the ready. 

Firstly, please reach out to your doctor. She or he will be able to do an in-person assessment and offer recommendations. Additionally, Project NICU helps provide free counseling sessions for NICU families - learn more about that here: Project NICU Counseling Program. And if you’d like additional mental health resources for NICU families, please visit http://www.nicuhealing.com/ or https://openpathcollective.org/