Understanding Postpartum Depression: Why Stories About Celebrities Are Not Enough

by Stephanie Sprenger and Jessica Smock

Volkan Olmez / Unsplash

Celebrity stories about going to “rehab” for drug addiction are not new. However, our newsfeed is full of stories about how Nashville star Hayden Panettiere has entered a treatment facility not for substance abuse but for postpartum depression, according to her publicist.

Panettiere has been open about her struggle with postpartum depression. Her daughter Kaya was born in December. For Panettiere to seek help and to go public with her struggles takes enormous courage. She is a hero.

But one-day news stories about celebrities suffering from postpartum depression are not enough. It does not substitute for the type of coverage and support necessary to encourage the vast majority of women suffering from perinatal mood disorders who do not seek treatment to ask for help.

For the past year, as co-editors of Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience (She Writes Press, November 2015), we’ve been listening to the stories of survivors of perinatal mood disorders (PMD). After we posted a call for submissions to our anthology about women’s experiences with PMD and released our own survey, we heard from hundreds of women; they sent us essays, wrote about their stories for our survey, sent us emails and posted on social media. As mothers of four young children between us, we also have our own stories of postpartum struggles.

The experiences of real women who struggle with these conditions are far more complex than the quick news stories on celebrity websites. “The media shows up to talk about PPD whenever a celebrity is open about having it. But I wish they’d spend more time learning about the actual spectrum of illnesses women can have, and who the experts are, and the kinds of information women really need in order to get past the stigma and reach out for help,” Katherine Stone, the founder and CEO of Postpartum Progress, told us. “Instead, they rush out a story about the celeb with lots of hi-res photos and a few quick facts—the facts everybody already knows because they’re trotted out every single time—that really don’t get to the heart of the matter and sometimes are actually misleading, stigmatizing or downright wrong.”

Stone’s concerns are well-founded. The media doesn’t often dig deeper into the reality of postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders.

So what is missing from the public discussion of postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders? Here are just a few of the facts that complicate the simple picture often presented in the media:

1. Postpartum depression is only one of several perinatal mood disorders. Depression, anxiety, OCD and other mental health struggles can happen during or after pregnancy. As one of our survey respondents stated, “For me [the biggest misconception about postpartum depression] was the word, ‘depression.’ I didn’t have postpartum depression so I didn’t seek help. Years ago, when I went through my darkest times, postpartum anxiety, OCD and PTSD were not discussed. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me.” Another said: “I wasn’t classically depressed. I adored my son, but most evenings, I would think about what would happen if I threw him down the stairs or if he drowned in the bath. I knew I would never act on it, but having the visualization in my head scared me. I think the misconception is that it’s only depression. I didn’t realize until I went through it, that it could be that and much more.”

2. Postpartum depression and other perinatal mental disorders are not rare. Not rare at all. Experts often state that somewhere between 10 to 15 percent of new mothers suffer from postpartum mood disorders, but the actual number is likely to be higher, closer to 20 percent, according to Stone.

3. Postpartum psychosis is not a symptom of postpartum depression. According to Postpartum Support International, about one or two women out of 1,000 experience this much more severe condition, whose symptoms include mania, hallucinations, delusions and intense anger. These women are at risk of harming themselves or their babies, but the vast majority of women with postpartum mood disorders do not experience this medical emergency. As one mother told us, “The media portrays PPD and postpartum psychosis as one in the same so people think if you say ‘postpartum depression,’ that you want to harm your baby and are evil and should have your children removed to protect them. For myself, nothing could be further from the truth. I was obsessed with something awful happening to my baby and was solely focused on stopping that atrocity. But I was terrified to admit I needed help because I thought someone would take my baby away from me if I said how I was feeling.”

4. You can’t tell a mother is struggling just by looking at her. I’ve seen readers on social media comment about how surprised they are that Panettiere needs more serious treatment because she has looked so good in her recent photos and interviews. Mothers struggling with perinatal mood disorders can appear happy or “normal.” One mother said to us, “You can be apparently functioning on the outside but be in a very dark place inside. I answered all my OB’s questions cheerfully when she asked me about depression. I didn’t want to be a burden or a failure. As a result she wasn’t too worried about my state of mind.”

5. Postpartum depression isn’t always gone when the baby is a few months old. Many women, like Panettiere, are still struggling when their babies are close to a year old or older. One mother told us, “At 15 months postpartum I tried going off my medication, and within days was back to square one. Not all bodies recover at the same rate, and some of us take a very, very long time. I remember being told by a pediatrician when my son was very young and I said that I’d just been diagnosed with PPD, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine by Christmas [around when my son would be 6 months old].’ Well, I wasn’t fine by Christmas, and putting that expectation on me was just one more reason to feel different and alone.”

6. Women who give birth to full-term babies are not the only ones who suffer. Women who experience miscarriages and stillbirths can also experience PMD, as well as women (and men) who adopt a child. One woman wrote to us, “My partner (a woman) also was impacted emotionally but she doesn’t acknowledge, accept or explore those [feelings] because in her head, those things only happen to the one who birthed.”

We hope that the media’s focus on postpartum depression because of Panettiere’s treatment is more than a one-day story. We hope that she serves as a role model for thousands of women who are struggling but have not yet sought treatment.

We hope that America is ready to take postpartum depression and other perinatal mood disorders seriously for more than a day. Because moms and their babies deserve more than a sound bite.