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The stigma surrounding postpartum depression stands in the way of seeking help.

Postpartum depression: when being a new mother becomes taboo

Postpartum depression: when being a new mother becomes taboo

Nearly half a million women in the US suffer from this mental illness, which is more common than people think.

The stigma surrounding postpartum depression stands in the way of seekin...
The stigma surrounding postpartum depression stands in the way of seeking help.

By Noelia González @NoeliaGMo

Pain, fear, anxiety, sadness and shame is not what a mother expects to feel after giving birth to her baby. At the very least, that is not what society seems to expect from her. However, it is estimated that  one out of every five women in the United States suffers from postpartum depression. Even though this condition is more widespread that what is believed, it is still marked by a social stigma that often stands in the way of mothers seeking help in a timely manner.

On the other hand, postpartum depression is not as common as the so-called “baby blues” experienced by most mothers –nearly 70%– during the first week after childbirth. While the baby blues entails changes of emotions, sadness and problems sleeping, among other symptoms, postpartum depression is characterized by the persistence of these symptoms, and they may appear at different times after the baby has arrived; anytime between six weeks and six months later.

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Mothers who suffer from postpartum depression also say they feel disconnected from their child, have problems thinking and making decisions, lack energy and have thoughts of guilt or shame. According to what was explained to Univision Noticias by Jean Ko, an epidemiologist with the Maternal and Child Health Epidemiology Program at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the symptoms also include thinking whether or not life is worth living, feeling guilty about not being a good mother, worrying too much about the baby and believing, for example, that someone is going to hurt or take away the baby.

More widespread than what is believed

In 2011, between 7 and 19% of women reported suffering symptoms of postpartum depression, according to figures from the CDC. Some studies also suggest that men can suffer postpartum depression, even though this is still being researched.

Feeling so much pain can make the mother want to end her life or even that of her baby, for want of another alternative. Even though it is a possibility, infanticide is not as widespread in postpartum depression as it is in postpartum psychosis, when there is a detachment from reality, explains Peter Schmidt, Chief of the Behavioral Endocrinology Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Women are more inclined to suffer postpartum depression if they already have a history of depression or postpartum depression, or if they have suffered depression or anxiety during pregnancy. According to the CDC, other risk factors include lack of social support, tension with their partner, having a premature baby or being hospitalized, having had a pregnancy involving complications –including infertility- or having more than one baby or having lost a baby.

Even though some studies indicate that low socioeconomic level can be a risk factor, it is hard to determine if this is “a cause or a consequence” of postpartum depression, said Ko. According to Schmidt, of the NIMH, postpartum depression is present in all social classes and is present on an international level.

But there is a solution.

“Postpartum depression is like any other medical condition and it is treatable,” said Ko. The first step is to ask the gynecologist or obstetrician for an exam to confirm or discard postpartum depression. From that point on, there is the possibility of psychological therapy or medications –sometimes the same ones prescribed for depression– or a combination of both. There are also support groups, such as Postpartum Progress (in English) and Postpartum Support International (in English and Spanish) for finding support groups in the United States and other countries.

“If think you, or a dear one, has postpartum depression, talk to a health services provider about that,” Ko advised.

In her column published in the Washington Post, Carolyn Hax recommends not only setting up a doctor’s appointment immediately, but also not to be afraid to be insistent in getting the appointment confirmed or even to go to the emergency room if a woman thinks she might hurt herself or her baby.

Likewise, wherever possible, an important element for the treatment is prevention, Schmidt said. “The family, the couple, the woman herself, can be attentive to the possibility that this might be happening,” said the doctor from the NIMH.

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In many cases, the stigma surrounding postpartum depression, women’s fear of being judged and social pressure for being a good mother can cause the woman not to be truthful about the situation she is experiencing and, therefore, not look for or receive proper treatment. When this happens, postpartum depression can become a chronic condition, making it even more difficult to treat.

In her column in Quartz, Maureen Shaw, who suffered postpartum depression and managed to find treatment in time, reflects upon that social pressure that kept her silent for months. “It’s ironic that I suffered in silence precisely because I didn’t want to be labeled a bad mother,” she writes. “In fact,” she adds, “I realize now that admitting I struggle with postpartum depression doesn’t make me a bad mom; denying myself the care I need does.”

In that respect, Ko said that “we can reduce the stigma by talking about postpartum depression and raising awareness about it in our families and communities.”

In late August, a 22-year-old woman in Arizona confessed to having drowned her twins, age two years, and having killed their 3/year/old step-brother, last August 31 st. Even though postpartum depression as such was not addressed, the mother, Mireya Alejandra López, said she had been taking medications for depression, schizophrenia and psychosis. According to the AP, the woman also said she had killed her children because she wanted to prevent them from having the same difficulties she herself was facing. 

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Many women with postpartum depression say they want to take their own lives or that of their children because they want to prevent them from suffering, and the pain they feel is such that they can see no other alternative. This is what makes people do this sort of thing and often “it’s a reflection of how much pain the illness is causing,” stated Schmidt, who also said he was not yet familiar with the Arizona case at the time of the interview. “It’s a true tragedy,” he added.

Lea esta historia en español:  La depresión postparto: cuando la maternidad se convierte en tabú.

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If you’re thinking of harming yourself or know someone who is, immediately tell someone who can. Call 911 or go to the emergency room. You can also call this free number, available 24 hours, to talk to a counselor from National Suicide Prevention: 1-800-273-8255.  Text Telephone: 1-800-799-4889

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