They feel like failures as mothers and in their relationships.
They often feel no attachment to their children or to the world around them.
They are haunted by thoughts of harming themselves and their children.
They are mothers suffering from the perilous thoughts that come from having postpartum depression.
And we are ignoring them all.
Every year in the United States more than 400,000 women experience postpartum depression ("PPD") or other postpartum mood disorders. Often mislabeled as the “baby blues,” postpartum depression is a form of depression that can develop during pregnancy or after childbirth.
It is common for most new mothers to experience some form of the “baby blues," which includes feeling anxiety, trouble sleeping, crying often and mood swings. Generally, these symptoms subside within two weeks.
Sufferers of postpartum depression experience severe symptoms that are longer lasting. These more severe symptoms include the persistent fear of not being a good enough mother, extreme mood swings, and recurrent thoughts of harming themselves and/or their children as well as intense irritability and anger.
1 in 7 women in America suffer from PPD, and yet there is an overwhelming silence in our country about maternal mental health. The majority of our legislators are not supporting bills that can help give women and families the support they need during this difficult time. Like most people, mothers are often ashamed to admit they have a mental health issue. Many mothers express a normal demeanor in front of family, friends and during routine doctor appointments, yet their lives at home are tumultuous. Having a baby is a joyful time, but it can also be an extremely stressful time. It’s hard enough for mothers to admit they aren’t feeling a bond with their new baby let alone having thoughts of harming themselves or their child.
Recently I joined a diverse group of maternal health advocates organized by the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health (NCMMH) to lobby on Capitol Hill for HR3235, the "Bringing Postpartum Depression of the Shadows Act of 2015."
Introduced in July of 2015 by Rep. Katherine Clark [D-MA-5] and Rep. Ryan Costello [R-PA-6], this bill will increase access to screening for maternal depression, make grants available to states to establish, expand, or maintain programs for maternal depression screening. Additionally, states can use the grants to train health care professionals and provide enhanced treatment to women with PPD.
Throughout the day, several women shared harrowing stories of how they overcame PPD with legislators. Tears flowed as they spoke of their lives before seeking help with PPD. Many had thought of hurting themselves with knives, felt detached from their baby after giving birth, and had the urge to push their strollers in front of oncoming traffic. I listened in awe. You would never think by looking at them that they had experienced PPD.
I was most affected by meeting Joanne and Steve Bryant. They are the parents of Shelane Gaydos, a deceased mother of three daughters ages 8, 6 and 3. After studying criminal justice and going on to graduate from George Mason University, Shelane decided to become a police officer. Shelane was beautiful, intelligent and confident. Although she only stood 5'4" and weighed 115 pounds Shelane had no fear and was able to take down people twice her size when necessary. After overcoming a life-threatening childhood illness and losing hearing in one ear, it was easy for Shelane to connect with people who had faced their own life-altering circumstances. She took pride in caring for her family and dedicated her life to serving her community and helping those in need.
Shelane was left devastated after what was supposed to be a routine doctor's appointment on May 29, 2015. She was pregnant with her fourth child. As she and her husband waited anxiously during a 12-week check-up, no heartbeat emerged through the ultrasound. Shelane was in a state of shock. The doctor explained to Shelane that she'd had a miscarriage. The baby was dead. Shelane underwent a D&C the same day.
Later on, Shelane expressed feeling sad and stressed out to her sister, Sarah. Thinking that all she needed was rest, Shelane took a few days off from work. Those close to her say that she acted normally. She was looking forward to starting a new role within the police department. Little did anyone suspect that she was sinking deeper and deeper into heartache, depression and confusion over the loss of her baby.
Shelane was never screened for PPD. At a follow-up appointment on June 11, 2015, Shelane received test results that were "inconclusive." She would never know why her baby died. Tragically, Shelane ended her life on June 12, 2015 -- just two weeks after having the miscarriage. Her parents, Joanne and Steve Bryant, have spent the last year trying to understand why. They have been struggling to overcome their own depression, anger, and guilt. They are also trying to overcome the stigma that often leaves an umbrella of shame hanging over a family after a loved one's suicide. Looking back, Joanne says there were no significant changes in her demeanor, though she did spend a lot of time looking for answers. It was hard for Shelane to accept that her test results were inconclusive. Joanne tearfully recounted one regret. "The day she found out her test results were inconclusive, no one was there with her. For whatever reason, we were all busy. I wish someone had just been there to hold her hand."
Since Shelane's death, her parents have taken on many roles. In addition to helping their son-in-law raise their three granddaughters, they have also become public advocates for PPD awareness. Joanne and Steve courageously share Shelane's story and host events to let other families know that they are not alone. Shelane's story emphasizes why the passing of Bill HR3235 is mandatory. Shelane did not exhibit any of the obvious symptoms of PPD. By all appearances she seemed like her normal self to everyone around her. She was active in the Girl Scouts, coached her daughter's lacrosse team and was looking forward to starting a new job. However, she was never screened for PPD by her physician, nor did her physician follow up with her after the miscarriage to check up on her mental and emotional health.
What is heartbreaking about Shelane's story and others like her is that PPD and other maternal mental health disorders are usually very easy to treat. We can't blame physicians for a patient dying by suicide or for not catching hidden signs of PPD. But there are tools available for doctors to screen their patients.
Think about it. Every time you go to the doctor, how many pamphlets and cards do you see in the waiting room? Tons, right? How many address your mental health? Many of the magazines feature parents posing happily with their newborns. Most of the articles address feeding, swaddling, soothing and what type of baby gear you should buy.
Maternal depression is real and it is treatable. Doctors need to be given the tools and take initiative to open a dialogue with mothers about their mental health. ACOG recommends women be screened for PPD every trimester, but this is not happening. Currently out of the estimated 400,000 women that suffer every year from PPD, only 15 percent receive treatment. With the right intervention, 90 percent of all women diagnosed with PPD can be successfully treated.
It is a complete disgrace that our legislators continue to turn a blind eye to mental health bills like HR3235. These bills get introduced and don't make it to the voting floor because they lack enough co-sponsors. Our representatives are ignoring the impact that maternal mental illness can have on a family for decades.
When a mother is suffering from PPD, there is a great risk of children having delays and problems in their physical, cognitive, social, behavioral and emotional development. We must urge politicians to support HR3235. Together, we can validate the feelings of women who are struggling to get through each day and feel alone in their battle. We can offer mothers solutions and help them get the treatment they need to feel productive, supported and loved.
I think about Shelane and her family often. There is nothing her family can do to bring her back but they try to honor her life every day. She lives on in her three beautiful daughters.
They can only hope that she is resting in peace.
Let's do what we can to help other mothers and families live in peace.
Click here to send a direct message to your local Representatives urging them to support HR3235 "The Bringing the PPD Out of the Shadows Act of 2015."
*If you or someone you know may be suffering from PPD or another form of mental illness, you are not alone. Please speak to your physician immediately.
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