July 10, 2014

Beyond the Baby Blues:
One mother's suicide shows us that we still don't understand postpartum mental health enough

This is the face of a woman who would eventually end her life while suffering
from a postpartum mental illness. Cindy Wachenheim was only 44.

Postpartum depression affects 1 in 7 women. Some 22% of women will be depressed in the first year after delivery.

Of the women that give birth this year, 1 to 2 out of every 1,000 will experience postpartum psychosis. Of those women 5% will commit suicide or infanticide.

Maternal mental health is an incredibly important topic.

And yet, we still don't understand it enough.

This came to light on March 13, 2013, when a stable and loved lawyer leapt to her death from her eighth story apartment with her six month old strapped to her chest. Why? Because she was convinced that she had caused him a brain injury.

Postpartum depression can affect anyone. As the New York Times explained:
Cindy Wachenheim was someone people didn’t think they had to worry about. She was a levelheaded lawyer working for the State Supreme Court, a favorite aunt who got down on the floor to play with her nieces and nephews, and, finally, in her 40s, the mother she had long dreamed of becoming.
No one expected it.

In the past decade, postpartum depression has become less the elephant in the room. With celebrities like Brooke Shields, Gwyneth Paltrow and others coming out and speaking candidly about their struggles with maternal mental health, it's become more normal.

We still have room to grow.

For one, common perceptions of postpartum depression hold that it starts early in the postpartum period--within weeks. Wachenheim, however, didn't show any symptoms until her son was four months old.

A study published in JAMA Psychiatry showed that women tended to have more severe symptoms than we usually imagine also. A full 20% admitted to having suicidal thoughts.

Screening is critical. NPR summed up one expert's opinion:
She adds that screening is critical because, once diagnosed, treatments are highly effective. She says that individual or group therapy and even medications like antidepressants can help the vast majority of women within a few months or a year.
Despite the effectiveness of early treatment, widespread screening still hasn't been recommended.

This is an area that we most certainly need to be exploring further as we look to building a world that is safer and healthier for women on the whole. The stigma of mental illness, even as we continue to shed light on how common postpartum depression is, still affects people that are struggling. The Mayo Clinic reminded us:
Postpartum depression isn't a character flaw or a weakness. Sometimes it's simply a complication of giving birth. If you have postpartum depression, prompt treatment can help you manage your symptoms — and enjoy your baby.
Overall, I think more widespread screening, at various points during the first year after birth, is critical. It's an option that needs to be further explored.

In the meantime, it's up to each of us to connect to the people around us, to remind them that this life--that's it. It's all you have. And we're all in it together.

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