Postpartum depression has gotten a lot of press recently, in part due to Brooke Shields’s book and Tom Cruise’s misinformed comments about it. A certain mystery seems to surround this illness. Women fear it, understandably. Just at the time when they most need their strength and sense of wellbeing, after the birth of a baby, a dark mood can move in and take over.
Equally mysterious, because somehow they don’t get adequately discussed, are methods of treatment—and even methods of prevention. I will talk about these, but first, here’s what postpartum depression can look like.
A thirty-eight year old woman with her first baby described herself, within the first months following birth, as “losing it”. She said, “I awake each day with dread. I can’t face another day of feedings and diapers and small excursions to the neighborhood park. I feel myself getting unhinged. Each day is endless and like the day before. I feel I made a terrible mistake and I worry that I’m not taking good care of the baby.”
Her husband is supportive and helpful. So are her mother and friends. Nothing makes a dent in the woman’s low mood and anxious worry over her child. Perhaps BECAUSE she’s a new mother people want to avoid the obvious: she’s depressed.
The birth of a child, usually regarded as a joyous event, paradoxically brings an increased risk of emotional illness to the mother. One out of three women has an episode of at least mild clinical depression after childbirth. Experts in postpartum depression recognize three levels of the disorder. The so-called “maternity blues” is a brief depression affecting 50 to 70 percent of all mothers. This relatively mild postpartum depression can nevertheless include crying spells, restlessness, feelings of unreality and confusion—and, less frequently, feelings of depersonalization, guilt, and negativity toward husband and baby. The symptoms may disappear within a week.
Ten to twenty percent of postpartum women will experience a moderately severe depression that lasts six weeks to a year or longer. The specific content of postpartum worries seems to distinguish it from mood disorders at other times in a woman’s life. Postpartum depressed mothers have extreme anxiety about their infants’ wellbeing, and they doubt their ability to have normal maternal feelings toward the child.
Postpartum depression may be worsened by outside events in the woman’s life but the fact that hormones play at least a role in the phenomenon has become quite clear. At some point within five days after delivery there’s a dramatic drop in estrogen and progesterone and a large increase in prolactin. Studies correlating hormone levels with mood both before and after childbirth have found that the more the estrogen drops, the worse the new mother sleeps.
Plummeting progesterone also predicts problems. The lower the progesterone drops, the more likely it is the new mother will become depressed within the first ten days of giving birth.
A very small number of women—.01 to .02 percent—experience postpartum psychosis, a remarkable illness that hits between the third and fourteenth day after the baby is born. (It has virtually never been known to occur in the first two days postpartum.) When it happens, it happens fast. What at first may look like the onset of a mildly depressed mood very quickly intensifies into an entirely different phenomenon. Obstetric nurses will keep a sharp eye on any depressed new mother, knowing there’s a chance that insomnia, exhaustion, agitation, and irritability could escalate to a full-scale psychosis, with alternating states of elation and depression, delusions, and hallucinations. Often the hallucinations—including “voices”—warn the mother of imminent harm to her children. This is the type of depression suffered by Andrea Yates when she killed her children.
Women with a past history of depression—and especially women who’ve previously experienced postpartum depression—are at risk. It’s important, whenever possible, to try to prevent this illness from occurring, not only because of the suffering it brings to the mother, but because of its devastating effects on the child and the infant-mother bond.
About the Author…
Colette Dowling, LMSW, is a writer and psychotherapist practicing in New York City. Among her books are The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, Red Hot Mamas: Coming Into Our Own at Fifty, You Mean I Don’t Have to Feel This Way?: New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction, and The Fraily Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls.