Many mamas-to-be hear the term “postpartum depression” and become concerned that they may soon face this condition. How common is it, should moms be worried, and what can they do?
We chatted with Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, an Associate Professor and Director of the UNC Perinatal Psychiatry Program of the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders. With years of both clinical and research experience with women who have recently given birth, her focus is on perinatal depression, and we talked to her to learn what PPD is, what the risk factors are, and why there’s hope for the future.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines postpartum depression (or PPD) as “a mood disorder that can affect women after childbirth.” Dr. Meltzer-Brody explains the symptoms: “PPD is one of the most common and devastating complications of childbirth, affecting 1 in 8 women, and associated with mood symptoms, sadness, anxiety, ruminating thoughts, and markedly impaired functioning.”
Many women experience feelings of being overwhelmed, and of course, lots of moms are exhausted from constant middle-of-the-night feedings and simply from being needed 24/7. There’s a difference, however, between the disarray that new moms feel and the symptoms of PPD. Dr. Meltzer-Brody points out that moms who feel a bit overwhelmed are able to function, (and by function, that doesn’t mean you have time to shower every day) and to enjoy their baby.
“Most women in the first few weeks after giving birth are exhausted and feel a little overwhelmed. The difference has to do with: Is the mom able to function? Is she able to enjoy her baby in some ways? Most women will get their sea legs,” she says.
During this time, moms may still feel a bit out of sorts. PPD, on the other hand, is truly in a different category. Dr. Meltzer-Brody says, “We refer to the ‘baby blues’ as something that can affect between 75-80% of women and is a transitional period. In contrast, PPD is horrendous. Moms feel awful. They aren’t able to function, and they don’t feel like themselves. The symptoms are much more severe. They may feel like this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. There’s horrible guilt associated with it, because they know this is supposed to be a happy time, and yet they feel terrible. It’s quite different in terms of severity and persistence. It doesn’t go away in a week or two,” she explains.
The length of time that a mama may feel continually exhausted is also another sign that she is experiencing PPD.
“If untreated, PPD depression can go on for at least a year or longer. The postpartum period is such a vulnerable time, and it’s so important for mom and baby to bond and have what is called ‘appropriate attachment.’ If that doesn’t happen or is impaired, then PPD can negatively impact bonding and attachment that can cause long-term difficulties for the child, as well as suffering for mom too.”
PPD risk factors may include a personal or family history of depression, stress, experiencing pregnancy complications, and a thyroid imbalance. Even if a mom has more than one risk factor, it does not mean she will experience PPD. Dr. Meltzer-Brody explains: “We are trying to understand what causes PPD and what the biologic and genetic causes are. We know that the hormonal changes from pregnancy to postpartum are dramatic, in many ways, and some women may be genetically vulnerable.”
The good news? Nearly all moms who have been diagnosed with PPD, and then treated with medication and/or therapy, have a successful outcome. To that end, Dr. Meltzer-Brody and her team have developed an app, called PPD ACT, available in the App Store or Play Store, that can privately screen postpartum moms, give them options and referral information, and connect them to other resources. It’s designed to reach women wherever they live, while giving researchers and doctors the opportunity to understand why some mamas develop PPD.
Although PPD is a condition that is often unrecognized and untreated, many resources are available. Moms who are experiencing symptoms of PPD, or would like more information, should visit Postpartum Support International www.postpartum.net. This site connects moms with local resources and has information on risk factors, symptoms, and treatments.