Local News

Fighting perinatal depression, UNC leads country in psychiatric care for new mothers

Posted February 15, 2019 8:00 a.m. EST

— Many women don't have the expected joy of pregnancy and childbirth.

Theirs is a darker experience.

“It can be scary; it can be confusing,” said Dr. Mary Kimmel, medical director of the UNC perinatal psychiatry inpatient unit. “They can feel depression coming over them almost like a curtain.”

More than 11 years ago at UNC, an outpatient perinatal depression program revealed a greater need for inpatient psychiatric care.

Many women weren't emotionally or mentally ready to go home and care for their newborns.

“They really need to focus on their own care first,” Kimmel said.

Some women experience postpartum psychosis, which was once thought to be a rare condition, Kimmel said.

“I actually think we may be under-diagnosing it,” she said.

The average stay in the unit is about 10 days.

The program is the first of its kind in the United States, recognizing the importance of family visits, when possible.

“Sometimes we actually have them Skype with their family,” Kimmel said.

One challenge is the stigma often attached to inpatient psychiatric care.

“This is a medical condition,” Kimmel said. “It's a treatable medical condition, and we need to think about it that way."

Kimmel said patients find strength with each other in the unit.

One group created a painting of a tree for the sake of other women who will need the same care. Brown branches anchor women’s thumbprints, which look like leaves.

“They can put their thumbprints so that they can know that they are part of something larger and that they're not alone,” Kimmel said.

The UNC program has been a model for others established around the country.

Guidance published in a medical journal this week suggests special counseling to help prevent depression.

UNC has played a key role in a drug trial for a new, faster-acting IV medication called brexanalone that’s specifically for post-partum depression.

The FDA is expected to make a final decision about the drug in mid-March.