Maternal mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes

Pam Belluck of the New York Times published a two-part piece (see part 1, part 2) on the common and varied onset of maternal mental illness. The articles feature a compilation of stories that chillingly portrays the experience and perspective of mothers who encounter diverse manifestations of maternal perinatal depression: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder. Of course, the prevalence of postpartum depression has been well-recognized: the effects of perinatal depression, or depression during the pregnancy or the first year postpartum, is “impressively common and can have devastating consequences” for women, children, and families. However, recent studies challenge the common understanding that symptoms present only in the weeks following delivery. Rather, researchers say that many women begin experiencing depression during pregnancy, and can develop throughout the first year postpartum:

Postpartum depression isn’t always postpartum. It isn’t even always depression. […] In the year after giving birth, studies suggest, at least one in eight and as many as one in five women develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or a combination. In addition, predicting who might develop these illnesses is difficult, scientists say. While studies are revealing clues as to who is most vulnerable, there are often cases that appear to come out of nowhere.

Sometimes cases are mild, resolving themselves without treatment. But a large analysis of 30 studies estimated that about a fifth of women had an episode of depression in the year after giving birth, about half of them with serious symptoms.

Depression in pregnancy can be missed because symptoms like trouble sleeping and moodiness also occur in pregnant women who are not depressed. And doctors have historically been taught in medical school that “women don’t get depressed during pregnancy because they are happy,” said Dr. Katherine L. Wisner, a professor of psychiatry and obstetrics at Northwestern University.


Holding Hands With a Newborn Baby” by Bridget Coila is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The second NYT article focuses on the story of one mother, Cindy Wachenheim, who, despite repeated assurances from her doctors, became obsessed with the notion that she caused her son irrevocable brain damage. Read the whole story, it is worth it.

Experts say such breaks from reality are likely symptoms of postpartum psychosis, which affects only one or two in 1,000 mothers. About 4 percent of those hurt their children; about 5 percent kill themselves. Flagrant cases usually emerge soon after birth; women may hear voices or feel compelled to inflict harm, like Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001, or Dena Schlosser, who in 2004 cut off her infant’s arms. Both women were ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Most other maternal mood disorders do not involve such unshakably unrealistic convictions; most women know something is wrong, and although they fear they will harm their children, they rarely do.

Support for mothers experiencing perinatal depression can be found here, here, here, and here.


via NYT