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!

Can Blueberry Extract Help Prevent Postpartum Blues?

blueberries.jpg
Credit to flickr.com user ___steph___. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Postpartum blues, a range of sad emotions that peak five days after giving birth, is often seen as a precursor for postpartum depression. But a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that dietary supplements, including blueberry extract, may lessen the effect of postpartum blues, and possibly prevent postpartum depression.

Researchers believe that postpartum blues are controlled by hormones, and the changes that occur in them after birth. In the postpartum period, estrogen and progesterone drop severely, which may contribute to depression. Postpartum depression is also coupled with an elevation in the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A), which regulates neurotransmitters in the brain.

During the study, scientists gave a group of 20 women a dietary supplement containing L-tyrosine and L-tryptophan–both thought to help balance postpartum MAO-A activity–blueberry juice, and blueberry extract. The levels of tryptophan and tyrosine in breastmilk were not affected by this dietary supplement. The blueberries were added to help the chemicals cross the blood-brain barrier.

A control group of 21 women were not given a supplement, which may mean that the results of the study may be challenged by the placebo effect. But it’s difficult to argue with the results: on the Visual Analog Scale, a commonly-used measure of pain, the group that did not receive the supplement had scores of a thousand times higher than those women that received the supplement. On the Profile of Mood States, the control group showed a significant increase in depressive symptoms, but the women who received the supplement experienced a decrease in the same symptoms. The moods of the women taking the supplement were improved three-fold.

Even though the study did not have a placebo trial, the results speak for themselves. The supplement doesn’t have any negative effects, so researchers plan to have better studies, with bigger sample sizes and placebos. If the chemicals and blueberry juice and extract can  indeed decrease depressive symptoms this greatly, there’s no reason to not give women these supplements. What a great scientific advance!

Show me some love!