Postpartum Depression

Having a baby is not for the faint of heart. The journey from pregnancy to birth and beyond takes women on an emotional and physical ride that rivals any high-speed roller coaster. From weight gain to manic hormone levels to sleep deprivation and the reality of a new role in life, it is a wonder that women make it through this experience in one piece.

Not Just the “Baby Blues”

By Julianne Hale

Most of us bounce back after birth with amazing speed, easing smoothly into our new role as mother, caregiver, and milk machine. We come home from the hospital, gaze into the eyes of our baby, and are smitten with this new human being. Sure, there may be a few hiccups, but nothing to write home about.

Many women experience a couple days of emotional ups and downs – commonly referred to as “the baby blues” – but we realize this is normal and welcome the light at the end of the hormonal tunnel when our bodies finally normalize. Some women, however, are not so fortunate. Their baby blues do not come to an end. There is no light at the end of their proverbial tunnels. These women are suffering from postpartum depression, a serious but treatable condition.

According to The National Women’s Health Information Center, postpartum depression is characterized by feelings of mild to severe sadness, anxiety and emptiness that don’t go away and can interfere with day-to-day life. Researchers suspect that the high incidence of depression following the birth of a baby has to do with the huge dip in progesterone and estrogen that occurs within the first 24 hours after birth. The levels of these two female hormones increase dramatically during pregnancy, but generally return to normal very quickly after the birth. Such drastic hormonal changes can wreak havoc on women’s emotions. Unfortunately for some women, the emotional fallout is anything but temporary.

Dr. Sabrina Collins, an obstetrician/gynecologist with the Chattanooga Center for Women, has seen her share of postpartum depression (PPD) cases. She explains the difference between the baby blues and postpartum depression: “The postpartum blues typically last for two or three days with a little bit of sadness and then go away,” Collins says. “Postpartum depression lasts longer and the patient exhibits many symptoms, including tearfulness, distraction, crying, thoughts about hurting themselves or the baby, and trouble coping.”

In order to assist new mothers in catching postpartum depression early, Collins tries to screen all of her patients for PPD when they come to her for their follow-up visit. She says the screening process is simple. “I ask them how their mood is, how they are feeling, and how they are coping,” Collins explains. “Most of the time the patient tells me that she is fatigued; as we all know, that is quite common with the addition of a newborn. It’s the other symptoms that are red flags; in particular, feelings of fear that the patient might harm herself or the baby.”

While postpartum depression can affect any new mother, there are some women who have a higher risk factor for developing PPD. Marcie Ramirez, Middle Tennessee coordinator for Postpartum Support International, explains: “People with a history of mental illness have a high risk, as do people on either end of the age spectrum – young mothers or older mothers. If you have a history of minor depression, panic attacks, or OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), you are at a higher risk for postpartum depression. A mother who experiences a traumatic birth is more likely to develop postpartum depression, as are new mothers who have a history of sexual abuse. Bipolar disorder is a big indicator for postpartum psychosis, a very serious form of postpartum depression that affects about 1 to 2 out of every 1,000 new moms.”

Postpartum psychosis symptoms are more severe than those of postpartum depression. According to The National Women’s Health Information Center, they include: seeing things that are not there, feelings of confusion, actually attempting to hurt oneself or the baby, and rapid mood swings. It is imperative that these symptoms are taken seriously and that treatment is sought immediately.

Ramirez, who is passionate about postpartum depression advocacy and has experienced the disorder firsthand, has some excellent advice for women who are suffering from postpartum depression, as well as their loved ones. “It is very important that new moms get at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep,” she explains. “Spouses and loved ones should help out as much as possible to ensure that moms get adequate sleep. Family members should also encourage moms to speak with their health care providers and to seek out some type of support. It is very important that these moms not feel judged for their feelings. This can be difficult for spouses and loved ones to understand, so it is vital that they seek help outside of the home.”

Feelings of fear and anxiety about hurting their baby can paralyze mothers with postpartum depression, making them fearful to even be in the same room with their babies. This puts the baby’s care in jeopardy because bonding with the mother in the early weeks of life is vital to a baby’s development. Seeking professional help can start moms on the path to healing and recovery. A functioning, healthy mom is vital to the family unit, and getting mothers with postpartum depression professional help can ensure that they avoid years of needless depression. “If moms with postpartum depression do not get professional help, the condition can become chronic and lead to depression that can last for years and years,” explains Ramirez.

For many women, the experience of postpartum depression is shrouded in shame and guilt yet PPD affects a staggering 13% of all new mothers. Some women are so ashamed of the feelings they experience that they suffer in silence, refusing to admit to their loved ones what they are going through.

Collins wants women to know that talking about their feelings – no matter how painful they might be – is important. “I think that women should not be ashamed to talk about their experiences with postpartum depression,” Collins says. “Many of my patients spend their entire pregnancy meticulously caring for themselves, eating organic foods and exercising. Then, when the baby is born and they start having these uncontrollable feelings, they are ashamed. If more women spoke out about their experiences with postpartum depression, then new mothers would be more likely to talk about their feelings and seek professional help.”

Unlike the baby blues, postpartum depression is not a fleeting thing. Most women experience some sadness following the birth of the baby, but it goes away quickly and they emerge from their quick ride through a dark tunnel happy, healthy and ready to care for their families. If a new mother’s sadness persists and there is no light at the end of her tunnel, it is vital that she seek help and support from her family, other mothers and the medical community. Postpartum depression is a serious condition, but it is treatable, and there is no reason for any mother to suffer needlessly in silence and shame.

For information and support for both women suffering from postpartum depression and their families, visit Postpartum Support International also offers a Postpartum Depression Hotline: 1-800-944-4PPD.

Julianne Hale and her family reside in Cleveland. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Illinois State University and then an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Julianne is a member of the Chattanooga Writers Guild, is married, and has two children.