Postpartum Depression: More Common Than You Know
New mothers with postpartum depression can feel very alone. But at least 20% of new mothers experience it. Here's how to cope.
Perinatal Mood Disorders
To the 800,000 women who develop one of several types of perinatal mood
disorders each year (that's about 20% of new mothers), Merritt's story is
painfully familiar. Postpartum depression is often used as a catch-all
description, but in fact, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders include a lot
more than just classic depression -- and they can start before or well after
delivery. New moms can develop:
Depression: This can include the typical signs, such as sadness and
crying, as well as anger and irritability.
Anxiety and panic disorder: Like Merritt, mothers might feel anxious
and fearful about their ability to take care of their baby and worry they will
do something wrong. Some suffer debilitating panic attacks and feel unable
to go out in public.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Women with postpartum
depression can be plagued by constant worries about germs or intrusive
thoughts about harming their baby. Others are obsessed with doing everything
Posttraumatic stress: If something went wrong during birth -- a
medical complication or an emergency cesarean -- a mother might have anxiety
attacks with flashbacks.
Postpartum Depression: a Hidden Epidemic
Although perinatal mood disorders are common, more than half of all cases
are unrecognized and untreated. Some doctors attribute them to the "baby
blues," a short-lived state of intense emotion that comes on and disappears
quickly. In some cases, women don't confess their symptoms for fear of judgment
or stigma. That's particularly tragic, experts say, because perinatal mood
disorders -- such as postpartum depression -- respond well to counseling,
medication, and other treatment.
"Even highly intelligent women don't recognize what they have, and when they
do try to reach out, people just say, 'Yeah, that's motherhood. It's tough,'"
says Birdie Gunyon Meyer, RN, MA, CLC, coordinator of the Perinatal Mood
Disorders Program at Clarian Health in Indianapolis and president of Postpartum
Support International. "Between 1% and 3% of women get gestational diabetes,
and we check all women for it. About 20% of women get perinatal mood disorders,
and we still don't routinely screen for that," she says. (That could change
soon; see "The MOTHERS Act"
Causes of perinatal mood disorders are still poorly understood, but
researchers speculate that shifting chemicals in the brain during and after
pregnancy -- such as oxytocin, a hormone related to mood -- play a role. It's
more complicated than that, though, because new adoptive parents and fathers --
who are never pregnant -- can also develop depression and mood disorders.
Baby Blues vs. Postpartum Depression
When Merritt talked to her doctor at her six-week follow-up visit, she told
him that she was crying a lot and that things didn't feel right. "He said 'Oh,
that's just the baby blues. It's your hormones; it'll go away.'"
Her doctor was wrong. The baby blues and perinatal mood disorders are two
very different things. Some 80% of women do have the baby blues after delivery,
and it's true some symptoms are the same as for postpartum depression, such as
mood swings, sleep disturbances, and loss of appetite. Sometimes the baby blues
just involve an excess of emotion -- crying often, for no reason.