Hayden Panettiere’s struggle with postpartum depression, both on Nashville and in real life, has started a national conversation about a disorder that a lot of people—even women who’ve been through it—don’t understand. WBUR, Boston’s public radio station, recently aired a program devoted to the subject, featuring both medical experts and callers who’ve suffered from PPD. The show is fascinating and worth a listen, but if you’re pressed for time, here’s my takeaway.
Below, 14 things more people should know about postpartum depression.
1. A lot of women have it. As many as one in seven women will develop some form of depression or anxiety after having a baby.
2. It can begin in pregnancy, which is why women need screenings during pregnancy, and the option of medication and talk therapy for treatment, beginning from the first BFP.
3. It’s not just the “baby blues.” Some women with PPD literally can’t function—they can’t sleep, they can’t eat, they’re tormented by anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Mood Disorders, says, “Maternal suicide is one of the greatest causes of maternal mortality in the postpartum period.” It is no joke.
4. Postpartum depression doesn’t really capture the range of feelings. PPD has a huge spectrum of symptoms, which is why women may not seek treatment. They don’t feel sad, necessarily—maybe they feel anxious, petrified, irritable, mournful, regretful, or really, really agitated, or feel no connection or affection for the baby.
5. It’s so hard to talk about because the pressure to express happiness is overwhelming. You have a new baby! Isn’t she gorgeous? It’s hard to say, in response to the expectation that you be happy, “I feel just dreadful.”
6. It’s hard to tell what are “normal” difficulties and what is PPD. Well-meaning people tell you, “It’s supposed to be hard!” or “You’re supposed to be tired!”—perhaps not recognizing that a crippling sense of dread or anxiety is way beyond the normal difficulties of the postpartum period.
7. Poor women are especially at risk. Women with fewer social and financial resources, such as single mothers and teenage mothers, have a one in three chance of developing PPD.
8. The vast majority of women with PPD don’t get treatment, either because they don’t recognize that that they need help, or because there’s little help available in their area.
9. Women are suffering alone. Most women don’t see a health-care provider, except for the pediatrician, in the first few weeks after delivery. New mothers need more medical attention than they’re getting.
10. Social support is critical. Too many postpartum women are isolated. Spending time with other mothers, who may be struggling too, can be immensely helpful.
11. Men need mental-health support too. Thirteen percent of men feel depressed when their partner is in the third trimester. Men aren’t necessarily getting the support they need to be good partners, and weak partner support is a huge risk factor for PPD.
12. PPD, untreated, can last for years. A caller on the show said that she’d never fully gotten over her PPD, and her kids were 24 and 15.
13. PPD isn’t just a “mother” problem, it’s public health problem. Children with depressed mothers are at risk themselves. A caller on the show described his mother’s profound depression during his childhood in the 1950s and how it had negatively affected his entire life. The knock-on effect of PPD can ripple out, causing generations of problems.
14. Treatment can range from talk therapy to medication. A lot of women are reluctant to take meds during pregnancy and the nursing stage, but there are medication options that pose low risk to the baby, especially when the alternative is a depressed mother.
My main takeaway? New mothers need a lot more support than they’re getting. I hope that the celebrities who are talking about their own experiences will encourage the rest of us both to offer help to new mothers in our midst and lobby for better mental health services in underserved areas.