National Maternal Depression Awareness Month: My Experience, and How to Get Support

Trigger warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

postpartum depression
A picture of a black typewriter, above which are typed the words “Postpartum Depression” in capital letters. Credit to flickr.com user Twitter Trends 2019. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

May is National Maternal Depression Awareness Month. While up to 80% of mothers experience “baby blues,” up to 20% of mothers suffer from postpartum depression (PPD), a pervasive condition which sucks the life out of them. I’d like to share my experience with PPD in order to help destigmatize the condition and add to the conversation. I will also offer some tips on how to get support for PPD.

Women suffering from PPD endure a deep, pervasive sadness, fatigue, trouble sleeping and eating, thoughts of hurting themselves or the baby, and may isolate themselves. Symptoms may occur a few days after delivery, or up to a year afterwards, and can last for years. Treatments such as antidepressants can help.

My Experience

My experience was a little different. Within a week after the birth of my first child, a son, I suffered postpartum psychosis (PPP), which is the most severe form of PPD and only affects 1-2 mothers out of every 1000 births. Symptoms of PPP include hyperactivity, hallucinations or delusions, bizarre behavior, rapid mood swings, and thoughts of hurting the baby. If you or a loved one are suffering any symptoms of PPP, contact a mental health professional or the American Pregnancy Association immediately.

During my run with PPP, I didn’t sleep for a week. I ate/drank only chocolate milk, and couldn’t stop talking. I had pressured speech, racing thoughts, and other symptoms of mania, like irritability. I often vacillated from euphoric explanations of my “plan” for the baby’s care to intense anger at nothing at all. I also suffered from hypergraphia, writing over a hundred to-do lists with multiple items on them during the first few days. I was obsessed with breastfeeding my son, and attempted suicide when the breastfeeding relationship was threatened.

I committed myself to a local mental hospital, where I was very lucky to find a bed on the day my therapist asked for one, and earned a bipolar diagnosis. The doctors there treated me with Olanzapine, a tranquilizer which knocked me out, and 1500mg of Depakote, which toned down my mania.

After enduring the harrowing PPP experience, which I’ve covered in my upcoming memoir, Committed, I suffered from two years of standard PPD. I was constantly exhausted despite sleeping well, cried often, and spent my waking hours writing suicide notes. I often thought of plans to hurt myself, and had thoughts of hurting my infant son.

I was still obsessed with breastfeeding him, and refused to take medication that would have endangered the breastfeeding relationship, like lithium. When he turned two and a half, I weaned him, and started taking ,a href=”https://cassandrastout.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/1227/”>lithium, which utterly changed my life. The depression lifted, the sun came out, and I stopped wanting to die by suicide. I was happy again, and started properly loving my baby.

I can now happily say I’ve not suffered a bipolar mood episode, either depression or mania, for the past six years. In order to reach that stability, I tried over a dozen medications until I found a combination that worked. I changed psychiatrists seven times because they kept moving to different practices, and changed therapists twice because of the same reason. I attended weekly counseling sessions for years. I learned how to never miss a dose of my life-saving medication, and how to practice good sleep hygiene. I recently gave birth to a second child, with no ill effects.

Tips on How to Get Support

If you or a loved one are suffering from PPD, or especially PPP, find a mental health professional as soon as possible. If you have a therapist, ask him or her to refer you to a psychiatrist, if you’re interested in pursuing medication. If you don’t have a therapist or a psychiatrist, ask your primary care physician or ob-gyn for a referral to one of those. If you don’t have a primary care physician, go to urgent care or call Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773. Their website, postpartum.net, enables you to find local resources to get treatment, and support groups for new moms like you. You can also ask your ob-gyn if the hospital in which you delivered offers services to treat PPD.

Above all, fight stigma, especially self-stigma, which can creep in without you realizing it. You might feel ashamed or confused that you’re obsessed with your baby’s safety, or that you’ve had thoughts of harming your infant. Don’t be afraid of these feelings. They’re a sign of a mental illness which can be treated.

The difference between you as a mother suffering from PPD or PPP and the mother you can be on the other side of them is like night and day. You are not alone, either. Try to avoid isolating yourself. A therapist will understand, as will people in your support groups. Do everything you can to survive this, not only for yourself, but for your child.

You can do this.

Related:

Show me some love!

Maternal Bipolar Disorder Significantly Increases Risk for Premature Births

premature
A premature infant lying on a hospital bed just his size. Credit to flickr.com user C├ęsar Rincon. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Premature babies–infants born before the 37th week of pregnancy–endure a great number of challenges, such as high blood pressure, hypoglycemia, and breathing properly. No one wants their baby to be born early, unless there’s a risk to the mother.

But, unfortunately for mothers with severe bipolar disorder, they may not have a choice. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that mothers with bipolar disorder are twice as likely to give birth prematurely than mothers with no mental illnesses. And a 2010 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders demonstrated that in Taiwan, the incidence rate of premature births among pregnant women with bipolar disorder was 14.2%, compared to 6.9% of women without mental illnesses. The Taiwan study also included statistics about infants with low birth weights (9.8% vs. 5.7%), and smaller-than-gestational-age babies (22.3% vs. 15.7%).

Unfortunately, premature babies are also 2.7 times more likely than full-term babies to develop bipolar disorder later in life. For a full breakdown of these statistics, including the risk for psychosis and schizophrenia, click here.

But it’s not all bad news. The rates of premature births for bipolar mothers aren’t very high. A 14.2% chance to have a preterm baby means that you have an 85.8% chance to have a full-term baby. That’s pretty good!

So what can you do to prevent preterm births? The risk factors for a premature infant include:

  • Already having had a premature baby. This is a major risk factor.
  • A second pregnancy soon after having a baby.
  • Being pregnant with twins or more.
  • Having uterine or cervix problems.
  • Being overweight or underweight.
  • High blood pressure, stress, diabetes, and some infections.
  • Smoking and substance use.
  • Becoming ill with the flu.

Some of these things you can’t control, like having twins. But others, you can, such as avoiding pregnancy soon after having a baby, stopping substance use, or getting your flu shot. Maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy also helps, so be sure to exercise and eat a healthy diet.

Final Thoughts

Premature birth can be scary and challenging. But, while the likelihood of giving birth prematurely is increased for bipolar mothers, the overall rate isn’t that high. Follow your obstetrician’s advice. There are some steps you can take in order to hopefully prevent a preterm infant.

Good luck!

Related:

Show me some love!