Women who have postpartum depression feel a triple whammy of the stigma reserved for people with mental illnesses. Not only are they brought down by what many expect to be the happiest event in a woman's lifethe birth of a childbut also total honesty about their emotional state could invite scorn or even a visit from social services. Crippling sleep deprivation and the isolation of being home with a newborn compound the problem.
Wounds no one can see
When Katherine Stone, 38, of Atlanta, had images of her baby son drowning in the bathtub or being smothered on his burp cloth, she feared for her sanity. But she kept it from her husband as long as she could. Six years later the mother of two still feels judged for taking antidepressants for postpartum depression, and she believes there is a common misperception that depressed mothers are self-centered and weak.
"We're suffering from an illness that cannot be seen," Stone says. "We don't have a fever, swelling, vomiting, or diarrhea. No open wounds that will not healat least not the kind you can see with the naked eye. So, many wonder if we're really sick at all."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that as many as 12.5%, or 1 in 8 new moms experiences depression severe enough to disrupt the mother-infant bond. Postpartum depression, which can last more than a year, can have profound effects on a new or growing family. Mothers with postpartum depression are less likely to read to or play with their babies, and some studies suggest children of depressed mothers have slower mental and motor development, poor temperament, lower self-esteem, and more behavioral problems than children of moms without the condition.
Baby blues versus postpartum
No one knows for sure why some women experience severe mood problems after delivery. A mild, short-lived condition, the "baby blues," is nearly universal, afflicting up to 70% of women. "The first two weeks with a new baby are tough. But then most women get a better sense of control," says Ruta Nonacs, MD, associate director of the Center for Women's Health at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "Then they figure out how to take care of the baby, gain some mastery over the new schedule, and have a sense that they're gradually getting back to where they want to be socially, professionally, and physically."
Other new moms don't bounce back. They feel chronically overwhelmed, guilty, and irrational, and a handful of tragic cases end with the mother killing herself or her children. But help is available. A growing body of evidence finds that medications and other treatments can mitigate or even reverse postpartum mood disorders. The trick is finding a health professional who specializes in treating it and who won't brush you off with a pep talk. Yes, the depression may go away on its own, but waiting can put the whole family in jeopardy.