Paige Bellenbaum Is Changing the Game for New Parents

paige bellenbaum

Photo by The Motherhood Center

Paige Bellenbaum is the founding director of The Motherhood Center in New York City, which offers virtual and in-person treatment for people experiencing postpartum mood disorders. She is a licensed master social worker (LMSW) and has worked in the field of public policy for over 20 years.

Bellenbaum’s work is inspired by her own personal experience with severe postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of her first child—an experience that almost ended her life. Once she got better, she helped draft legislation in New York state that mandated hospitals to provide education to new parents on postpartum mood disorders, and which strongly encouraged screening of postpartum mood disorders. This legislation was signed into law in 2014.

For these accomplishments and more, we've named Bellenbaum one of this year's Verywell Mind 25, an award given to those who are doing everything they can to help push mental health forward. We caught up with her to discuss her work and what she’s focusing on now, and to get her thoughts on the current state of mental health for postpartum parents and families.

What It Means to Be Recognized

The truth is, when Bellenbaum first heard that she’d won the award, she was a bit taken aback. “Gosh, you know, I'll be honest, I was kind of in disbelief,” she shares. She spends so much of her time helping others, that being recognized this way took some adjusting. “I think sometimes people who are in helping professions forget about rewarding themselves and patting themselves on the back,” she says.

Now, she’s thrilled about the award—not only for what it means for her personally, but what it means for people in the mental health field in general to be recognized this way. Especially after the past few years, she and her colleagues are burnt out, Bellenbaum says. “To receive this recognition, it goes a long way,” she says. “It allows us to feel seen, and valuable. And that is so, so welcome.”

How It All Started

Bellenbaum’s first child was born almost 17 years ago, and even though she was a licensed social worker and therapist, she had trouble recognizing the signs that she was suffering from severe postpartum depression and anxiety. “I went through a very dark time for about nine months,” she says. Once she began treatment and started to feel more like herself again, she was filled with new feelings—rage, frustration, and anger about the state of postpartum mental health care in this country.

“In the process of getting better, I spoke to so many women and men who had or were having the exact same experience that I was, and yet, this was the first time that I had ever heard about it," she says. This inspired her to become an advocate for postpartum parents, and to help draft legislation in her state that mandated postpartum mood disorder education education and encouraged treatment screening for new parents. It’s also what inspired her to found The Motherhood Center.

“I wanted to make sure that other women here in New York City and New York state didn't have to suffer the same way I did for so long,” Bellenbaum says.

What Drives Her Work

Bellenbaum’s primary focus now is the work she does at The Motherhood Center, which she describes as a facility that’s unlike any other in New York. The Center is not hospital affiliated; it’s an independent organization that specifically treats pregnant and postpartum parents experiencing perinatal mood disorders. The center offers support groups for parents struggling with the transition to parenthood, outpatient treatment with social workers and psychologists that specialize in perinatal mental health, as well as treatment from reproductive psychiatrists who prescribed medication.

“The thing we do that nobody else does is we have a perinatal partial hospitalization program, and we call it a day program,” Bellenbaum describes. This program is for people who are having acute symptoms of postpartum mood disorders, many of whom experienced suicide ideation or psychosis. They attend the program five hours a day, five days a week.

“We have an onsite nursery, we have all kinds of specialized groups, and partner support and couples support,” Bellenbaum says.

It's this truly magical program where women that were really struggling with the transition to motherhood feel much better, much faster.

When asked what her primary goal is these days in her work, Bellenbaum put it simply: “I think my goal and one of the most important parts of this work and kind of the stories we don't hear a lot about is: we save lives.” She points to 2022 research from the CDC, which found that mental health conditions, including suicide and substance abuse, were the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths.

“Mental health has a generational impact, and being able to provide interventions at this very vulnerable and incredibly important phase, is so important,” she says. “It's life changing. It's life saving, and it's life changing.”

The State of Postpartum Health in America Today

Like many mental health professionals, Bellenbaum is very concerned about the state of mental health in America these days. “It's heartbreaking on every level, especially in the wake of the pandemic,” she shared. “The rates of people across the age spectrum who are struggling with mental illness in this country—it's in epic proportions.”

Pregnant and postpartum individuals are feeling the burden of this significantly, Bellenbaum notes. “I have been screaming at every journalist and every provider who I come in contact with that we're in the midst of a maternal mental health crisis,” she says.

And what does she see as some possible solutions? First and foremost, perinatal mental health needs more funding, and changes need to be made with health insurance so that more services are covered. The thing to keep in mind, says Bellenbaum, is that perinatal mental health is treatable, but only if treatment options are readily available.

“If treating these conditions was a priority in this country, people would be doing so much better,” she says. “They'd be so much happier, they'd be enjoying their lives more. And we would just be a more flourishing society.”

Advice for Struggling Postpartum Parents

In light of the skyrocketing number of people experiencing postpartum mental health challenges these days, we asked Bellenbaum to share what she’d say directly to a new parent who is struggling.

“First, I would always be sure to normalize and validate that person: know you're not alone,” she said. “It's not your fault that this is happening. And you are going to get better with the right treatment and support.” She’d also encourage people not to white-knuckle it. “I cannot tell you how many new and expecting mothers push on, push on, persevere,” she shares.

It's heartbreaking on every level, especially in the wake of the pandemic,” she shared. “The rates of people across the age spectrum who are struggling with mental illness in this country—it's in epic proportions.

Bellenbaum also encourages parents to take a preventative attitude about postpartum mental health. Seek help as soon as you start not feeling okay, she says, because the sooner you get help, the sooner you can feel more like yourself again.

Finally, she wants postpartum parents to know that these illnesses are treatable. “There are many people out there that know how to treat this, that know what they're doing,” she says. “And what I would say is a well mother equals a well baby. When you are healthy and well—and that includes mental health—your baby in return will be healthy and well.”

Paige’s Own Self-Care Routine

“Self-care” isn’t a term that feels quite right to Bellenbaum when it comes to the peripartum mental health sphere. So many people she works with think self-care means something like getting a pedicure, getting your hair cut, or going on a trip. “For those of us who are mothers, or for the people that I treat—'self-care,' is more like self-preservation,” she says. “Because I think it has a more realistic tone to it, right?”

In any case, for her personally, keeping her mental health in check involves focusing on the things in her life that bring her joy. “I have two dogs that I love, so very much—not quite as much as my kids, but my kids would tell you otherwise,” she says. “I take them for walks as much as I can.” She and her husband love to ski in Vermont. They just bought some land there, and put in the foundation for a house, which they hope to retire in some day.

“Going up there and being in the snow and having space and fresh air is so incredibly healing,” Bellenbaum says. “Exercise helps a lot, too.”

But perhaps her most valuable "self care" comes right from the work that she loves. “The fulfillment that I get out of it is a form of self care in and of itself,” she says. Right before our interview, Bellenbaum has been meeting with some of the parents at The Motherhood Center.

“I’ve got to tell you,” she said, “The feeling that I just had, when I enter this group I ran where all of these women were able to be vulnerable, and talk about their experience and support one another—not a day goes by that my arm hairs do not stand up on end that I am lucky enough to be a part of the healing process for new expecting mothers who are struggling.”

1 Source
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Four in 5 pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.