This week I was asked to appear on CNN's Headline News, on its program "Raising America," to talk about postpartum depression. My segment was bumped, but I was still able to sit on the set and watch as other guests talked about PPD in relation to this week's suicide of a mother in New York. The hair on the back of my neck was standing up and curling its fists as I heard a few things said by a guest that, while innocent, weren't exactly informed.
This happens a lot. There's bad news -- a mother has died, a baby is harmed, a celebrity speaks up -- and the media decides it's time to cover postpartum depression again. The writers or producers are in a hurry, which is their unfortunate general state, so they rush to grab someone to appear, someone who often doesn't know all the facts. And what does this lead to?
A morning show equates PPD to the baby blues when they're not at all the same thing, and the celeb mom they're covering has to clarify she actually never had PPD. Postpartum depression is equated with postpartum psychosis when they're very different. Common symptoms of postpartum depression, like anger and rage for instance, are never mentioned. Someone misstates when postpartum depression can occur. Someone else endorses bad practices for treatment, like quitting medications cold turkey or trying something that hasn't been proven in any way by science to be effective. A national magazine article gets the facts wrong about screening or treatment effectiveness. A show furthers the idea that moms with mental illness are dangerous. I'm sad to say I can probably only count on one hand the number of talk show and news segments I've seen over the last 10 years where someone hasn't gotten something wrong or furthered stigma.
You might call me nitpicky, except I know what it's like to be the mom sitting in her house, sobbing and reading an article or watching the television and becoming even more confused and more scared than she already is. I've been through postpartum OCD myself, and I've spoken with thousands of women who've had PPD. I know how they think. If you don't mention a mom's particular symptoms, she assumes she doesn't have PPD, she's gone crazy and no one can help her. If you suggest she do something that's never been proven effective, she will try it because she's grasping at every single straw to try and find a solution and she'll probably end up wasting months and continuing to suffer, time that only has the potential to cement the potential negative lasting effects of PPD forever on her or her child. If you mistakenly cite the period of time when postpartum depression might arise, if her symptoms came after that she'll be convinced no one can help her and will likely never make that call. This is life or death we are talking about. Details matter.
A study published this week in JAMA Psychiatry, which found that one in seven mothers will have postpartum depression, cited the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the postpartum period.
It's not hyperbole to say that PPD and related illnesses like postpartum psychosis are serious and potentially life or death situations. Lead author Dr. Katherine Wisner explained, in an interview with Science Daily:
"In the U.S., the vast majority of postpartum women with depression are not identified or treated even though they are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders," said Northwestern Medicine lead study author Katherine L. Wisner, M.D. "It's a huge public health problem. A woman's mental health has a profound effect on fetal development as well as her child's physical and emotional development."
Damn right. It's a massive problem, and whether it's inaccurate media coverage, or physicians who won't screen or who screen at the wrong times or the wrong way or not enough, or the lack of experienced psychiatric referral points, or the continued lack of effective education of mothers about the spectrum of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, we keep contributing to it. We make what is a temporary and treatable illness that is quite common among pregnant and new mothers even worse, and put the future of those moms and their children in jeopardy.
A mother killed herself this week, and almost killed her infant son. This isn't the first time that's happened and it won't be the last. We owe it to Cynthia Wachenheimand every new mother in this country to get the facts right, to ensure they know there is help, and to provide that help each and every time it is needed.