As doulas, Lesley Everest and Millie Tresierra have an up-close-and-personal relationship with mothers at their most vulnerable times: during pregnancy, labour, childbirth and the days and weeks after the baby's arrival.

They can see when a mother is struggling with mental health challenges, sometimes even before the mother herself realizes it.

They've also witnessed the lack of support services for many of these women.

That's why they're launching a new mother-to-mother support group, free of charge, that will meet every Thursday in NDG.

"I've been taking care of postpartum families for over two decades, and the depression is getting worse and worse," said Everest, founder of Motherwit Doula Care. 

The support group is open to pregnant women and mothers of babies up to the age of one who are experiencing postpartum depression or any mental health challenge.

"It can manifest in extreme anxiety, insomnia, [obsessive compulsive disorder], many different things," said Tresierra, a birth and postpartum doula at Motherwit Doula Care.

Stigma and fear

One of the biggest obstacles to new mothers getting the help they need is the stigma associated with mental health issues and the pressure to feel it's the happiest time of your life, Tresierra said.

"The women suffering are sometimes voiceless, and they don't feel comfortable reaching out because many times they're afraid as a mom that, 'They're going to think I'm crazy and take my baby away,'" she said.

A woman CBC agreed to identify only as Julie said that fear was intense when she suffered postpartum depression after the birth of her first child.

Julie is a nurse in a Montreal hospital, and the health care professionals who cared for her during labour, childbirth and the days that followed are her colleagues.

She told them she felt something was wrong immediately after giving birth, but they downplayed it and said the feeling would pass, Julie said.

So she didn't seek treatment for nine months.

Lesley Everest and Millie Tresierra

Doulas Lesley Everest and Millie Tresierra are reaching out to pregnant women and mothers suffering postpartum depression by offering a free weekly support group

Shame and guilt

"I felt shame and guilt about the fact I wasn't [better] ... then I felt more isolated and just like a failure," Julie said.

Julie was fortunate enough to be able to afford private counselling. As well, she says, she searched for a support group but could not find one.

"It's very hard to find resources in the community actually to send women to," said Dr. Hannah Schwartz, a psychiatrist at St. Mary's Hospital.

"Each CLSC is set up differently, and they may or may not have groups for women," Schwartz said. "I'm not even sure if they have groups for women with postpartum depression, so community resources are essential at this point."

Getting access to a psychologist whose fees are covered by provincial health insurance is difficult, too.

Long waiting lists

"Services have been cut dramatically in that area.... You'll wait for months before you see the CLSC psychologist," said Dr. Ann Rothman, a family doctor based at the Jewish General Hospital's Herzl clinic. 

Rothman said some family doctors can help a women struggling with mental health issues after childbirth, but some cannot.

"Many of them won't see women immediately postpartum because they don't have any experience dealing with breastfeeding or dealing with postpartum issues," Rothman said.

Safe space

Rothman welcomes the new support group launched by Motherwit and urges its organizers to network with the various cultural communities and hospital postpartum units, "so everyone knows they exist ... and can get the care they need."

The meetings are open only to mothers in need   those in care or on waiting lists for help from mental health professionals.

"It's a safe place for moms to go while they wait for something else," Tresierra said, "but also an opportunity to form that community and feel there are other women, other mothers they can call."

"We have to help them. We have to carry them. It's our responsibility."