Identifying Postpartum Depression is the First Step in Getting Help
By Katherine Stone
Marketing Consultant and Postpartum Mood Disorder Advocate
Each year approximately 400,000 women in the United States will experience postpartum depression after the birth of their children, and each year many of them are caught off guard by this very difficult illness. Most women receive little to no counseling prior to birth about the possibility they may experience a postpartum mood disorder, what symptoms to look for and where to go to find treatment. By educating yourself about the basics of postpartum depression, you will be better prepared to get the support you need right away should you need it, and get on the road to recovery.
Postpartum depression, or PPD, is much more than just “baby blues”, a feeling many new moms experience in the first three weeks after birth as they get adjusted to caring for their infants. PPD can arise any time in the first 12 months, and is believed to be caused by hormonal changes that affect chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. It is characterized by such symptoms as difficulty sleeping and eating, excessive anxiety, crying, inability to concentrate, feelings of hopelessness, feelings of inability to care for the baby and suicidal thoughts.
Some women even experience something called intrusive thoughts. These thoughts usually involve fears of harming their children, for example accidentally dropping them down the stairs or drowning them in the bathtub. These women are horrified by such thoughts, recognize they don’t make any sense, and will often demonstrate behaviors to avoid any potential for harm, including things like hiding kitchen knives or asking others to bathe their infants.
In my own experience, I had almost all of the above, with my symptoms appearing six weeks or so after my son was born. I had absolutely no appetite, and I couldn’t “sleep when the baby sleeps,” as everyone suggests. Instead I was obsessed with making sure the changing table was properly stocked and organized at all times, and I did laundry non-stop, even if only two bibs were dirty. I felt that I had no business being a mother since I was so anxious all the time and seemed incapable of calmly taking care of my infant. My first intrusive thought came one night when I was burping my son – imagine my horror after having the thought “what if I smother him with the burp cloth”! I became afraid to be alone with him, since I didn’t understand where the thoughts were coming from and wanted to ensure my son would not be harmed. I didn’t want to tell anyone what was happening to me, because I thought they would take me away from my family forever. When I finally decided to get help, I reached out to a local therapist. Thankfully, she didn’t call the authorities when I told her what I was thinking. Instead she explained that I was experiencing a postpartum mood disorder, and that I would be fine with treatment.
If you experience symptoms like these, it is important to contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible to get a diagnosis and move forward with any necessary treatment. This sometimes involves cognitive or “talk” therapy as well as medication in the form of antidepressants. I had both, and even though they didn’t “cure” me immediately, I did eventually get back to the old me and now I’m perfectly fine, and a very happy mother!
It is important to know that although postpartum depression can happen to anyone, there are some generally recognized risk factors that may indicate a greater likelihood of experiencing this illness. According to the New York Times article “Don’t Let Your Baby Blues Go Code Red” by Jane Brody, these factors include a personal or family history of depression or substance abuse, lack of support from family and friends, problems with a previous pregnancy or birth, depression after a prior pregnancy, marital or financial problems, being a young or single mother, complications during labor and delivery, a major life change at the time of the birth, and having a baby with serious problems. If you have any of these factors, it may be a good idea to discuss them with your OB/GYN or primary care physician in advance of the delivery of your child, so that your doctor can work with you to watch for the development of any symptoms of postpartum depression and have a plan in place.
If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be experiencing a postpartum mood disorder, consider attending one of the free, anonymous screening events held at thousands of sites across the country onNational Depression Screening Day, October 6, 2005. The program offers screening for common mood and anxiety disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. For the first time this year, screenings will also be offered for postpartum depression.
As part of the program, attendees will have the opportunity to take a brief, written questionnaire and talk to a health professional about their results. Those who score positive will be referred to local treatment resources.