Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Q&A: Postpartum depression, anxiety common; treatment, support available

Posted June 16, 2014

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's School of Medicine offers the only inpatient care in the United States for new mothers suffering from postpartum depression, a common and often untreated illness.

One of the best things a good friend did after the birth of my first daughter was not just to ask how the baby was doing, but to ask me how I was doing.

I'm not talking about a casual are-you-sleeping-at-all kind of question, but a sincere query about me and my well being. I was experiencing the usual baby blues, those crazy mood changes prompted by that lack of sleep, hormones and, for me, trouble getting breastfeeding started. My friend, who was nursing her own baby, came over, talked to me and set me in the right direction.

I'll never forget her kindness. And when friends welcome a new baby, I try and pay it forward and do the same thing my friend did for me.

As Caroline Pence, executive director of Postpartum Education and Support, tells me in this Q&A, it's common for new moms to feel those kind of baby blues. But, for some of us, those first days and months with our little ones can be very rough. Postpartum depression and anxiety disorders can start even before the baby is born.

The good news is there are people to help and treatments that work. We just all need to make sure we ask new moms how they really are doing.

Postpartum Support International's 27th annual conference is in Chapel Hill this week. The event is geared toward health professionals, but a Friday afternoon workshop and reception offers programs for family and community members. 

Read on for my email chat with Pence, whose group offers a host of programs and support for local moms, about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.

Go Ask Mom: Most people have heard of postpartum depression, but there are other disorders that new moms can experience, including anxiety disorders. What are the range of emotions that a new mom can experience?

Caroline Pence: Most mothers with newborn babies experience mild mood changes, often called the “baby blues.” Weepiness and mood swings during the first two weeks postpartum are normal and will resolve without intervention. But some women will experience more significant depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or post-traumatic stress. Along with this often comes a lack of interest in the baby and feelings of guilt for not being able to cope with motherhood.

GAM: How common are these mood disorders in new moms? Can it start during pregnancy?

CP: Postpartum mood disorders are much more common than people think, affecting one in eight women. Risk factors include having a family history of mental illness, a complicated pregnancy or birth, or a baby who is hospitalized in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety can occur during pregnancy and until a year after childbirth. Dads can also experience postpartum depression or anxiety.

GAM: What are some warning signs or questions friends and family might want to ask somebody who seems to be experiencing issues? Is it hard for a new mom to identify that she has a problem?

CP: Everyone expects that the weeks and months after a baby is born will be blissful and happy, and that belief is reinforced by our cultural expectations around motherhood. Women are ashamed that they are not enjoying every minute with their babies, and the feel they are to blame. Friends and family can make it easier for mothers to seek help by encouraging her to talk about her feelings and reassuring her that she is not alone. They can suggest that she seek treatment from a professional, just as she would for any medical illness.

GAM: What kind of treatment is available?

CP: Postpartum mood disorders are very responsive to treatment, and this is a hopeful message we should give to mothers. Treatment can include therapy, medication, or increased social support. Most often, a combination of all three is the best way to ensure the mother recovers fully. Medication is not always necessary, and women should consult with a psychiatrist or physician who is trained specifically in postpartum mood disorders.

GAM: A conference is planned in Chapel Hill this weekend. What will be the focus?

CP: Postpartum Support International’s 27th Annual Conference is being held in Chapel Hill this Friday and Saturday, June 20 to June 21. The topic for this year’s conference is “Creating Connections between Communities, Practitioners, and Science: Innovative Care for Perinatal Mood Disorders.” This four-day international conference and collaborative training program is designed for health care, mental health, public health, and childbirth professionals. On Friday afternoon, there are sessions designed for families and community members, and this is an affordable option for anyone interested in learning more about postpartum mood disorders.

Check Postpartum Support International's website for more important information about perinatal mood disorders and the conference.



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