More than Feeling Blue: The Importance of Identifying and Treating Postpartum Depression

Tiffany Hall, MFT

The first week after having my son was the most difficult. I was still healing from childbirth, dealing with the sudden surge of breast milk that caused my breasts to painfully become engorged, and the sleep deprivation that came with having to tend to the tiny new person that depended on me for their survival. The ebb and flow of hormones caused me to be weepy, exhausted, and feeling out of control.  When I went to my first post-partum checkup, I was given a questionnaire to screen for postpartum depression. My doctor assured me that my “baby blues” was quite normal during the first few weeks after giving birth.  However, if the blues lingered on for more than a few weeks, it could be a sign of a more severe, long-lasting mood disorder called postpartum depression.

Just like any chronic illness, postpartum depression can be debilitating, interfering with a mother’s ability to care for herself and her child. Some of the signs and symptoms of this illness include mood swings, anxiety, insomnia, and even suicidal thoughts.  Those with pre-existing mood disorders(i.e. bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder) or other stressors such as lack of family support,  financial problems, or traumatic birthing experiences are even more at risk for developing this illness. Left untreated, the illness can last for several months, and potentially develop into major depressive disorder. Even more severe (and much more rare) is, postpartum psychosis, which can cause a mother to experience delusions, paranoia, and thoughts of harming her baby. 

Though research has shown that post-partum depression affects 10-20% of women, it is likely that this number could be higher because there are many cases that go unreported. Cultural expectations about motherhood and mental health may leave many black women believing that feeling depressed is just a part of the package of new motherhood and cause them to not receive treatment. A 2011 research study that followed black, white, and Latina low-income women who gave birth between 2004 and 2008 revealed that only 4% of the black study participants initiated post-partum mental health treatment, compared to 9% of white participants, and 5% of Latinas. This statistic shows just how many of us continue to suffer in silence!

Mental health treatment may be far down on the list of priorities for new mothers, but it is an important part of self-care that can benefit the quality of life for both mother and child. Mothers who receive treatment for postpartum depression are more likely to see a reduction in their depressive symptoms, which then allows them to better care for themselves and their child.  Spouses and partners also enjoy a more mutually-supportive relationship. Even more importantly, children also then benefit from a happier, present mother, which reduces their risk of developing emotionaland behavioral problems in the future.

If you or someone you love is experiencing what may seem like symptoms of postpartum depression, get help.  It is important to have a dialogue with your medical or post-partum care provider to find out what options there are for treatment. Also, rally the support of your loved ones.  It is important that, as mother, you create space to care for yourself. Postpartum depression is a disease that can have long-reaching effects on both mother and child. Investing in mental health treatment is an investment in your family’s quality of life.