In 2014, when she was 20 weeks pregnant, Valerie Meek went in for an echocardiogram and learned that her baby boy had no heart beat. An autopsy and pathology report later revealed there were issues with the placenta, which was simply too small to sustain him. Her son was perfect, Meek told HuffPost. He was just not able to grow and thrive.
For the first six weeks after her baby was born still, Meek spoke to a therapist every single day. She’d been working with mental health professionals to treat a combination of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for more than a decade, and had long relied on therapy and medication to keep her symptoms in check. In a way, her long history of mental health issues was a blessing after such a heartbreaking blow, she said.
“I don’t know that I would have survived the loss had I not already had a huge network in place,” Meek told HuffPost. Now operations director for the non-profit Pregnancy After Loss Support, she knows all too well how easy it is for women to be swallowed whole by depression after a loss like her own.
Up to 15 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage (defined as a loss before 20 weeks) while about 1 percent of pregnancies in the United States end in stillbirth (a fetal death after 20 weeks of pregnancy). Pregnancy loss, in other words, is common. Yet the stubborn perception that it is rare ― an isolated event that only affects a handful of pregnant women ― means women contend not just with grief and sorrow, but with feelings of profound loneliness. And until the secrecy and stigma that surround pregnancy loss disappear, women are slipping through the cracks, many of whom go on to develop serious mental health issues like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Scientific research, at least, has begun to reveal the extent to which women struggle after such a loss. Estimates suggest that up to 20 percent of women who have a miscarriage develop symptoms of depression and/or anxiety ― feelings that don’t necessarily just disappear with time or even a subsequent pregnancy. A startling 2011 study out of the UK suggests such outcomes can be long-lasting. Among women who’d had a miscarriage or stillbirth, 13 percent were still experiencing symptoms of depression more than three years after their loss.
Other research has shown that women who experience miscarriage are at risk for developing PTSD, even if their loss occurs relatively early on in their pregnancy. Nearly 40 percent of women in a 2016 study ― most of whom had miscarried in their first trimester ― were experiencing symptoms of PTSD, which include reliving a traumatic event or a person avoiding any situations that remind her of it. PTSD can occur soon after a terrifying event or years later. For many women who have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth, a subsequent pregnancy can be particularly triggering.
“A lot of women have trauma around the ultrasound room,” Lindsey Henke, a clinical social worker and founder of Pregnancy After Loss Support, told HuffPost. “That’s where a lot of women figure out about their loss, or where it’s confirmed at least, and [if they become pregnant again] they have that bodily reaction, that feeling of terror and anxiety flooding their senses.” Other women may develop symptoms of PTSD centered around going to the bathroom, she said, if that is where they first noticed they were bleeding.
One reason why depression and PTSD after pregnancy loss still aren’t talked about enough is a tendency to discount the depths of women’s pain, particularly if a miscarriage happened early on, Henke said. But women can develop real, immediate love for their child-to-be and may also be grieving the loss of their potential parenthood. “It happens out of the blue,” Henke said. “Sometimes women’s lives can be threatened.”
And when their losses aren’t treated seriously, women are less likely to recognize that they need help and that help is available to them, she added. A lack of treatment can have unnecessarily tragic consequences, as research shows that depression and PTSD are extremely treatable.
For Meek, a personal history of mental health issues might just have been a lifesaver. Other women aren’t as lucky.
“It breaks me a little [to think of them,]” she said. “I couldn’t have survived without all the support I have. Not only do many women not have a support network of therapists, they don’t have a support network in their family and friends. You need that. You need it.”
For more about mental health after pregnancy loss, listen to Part 5 of IVFML below:
IVFML is a HuffPost Podcast hosted by Anna Almendrala and Simon Ganz and produced by Nick Offenberg. Send us an email at IVFML@huffpost.com.