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I was five weeks postpartum when I had my OB/GYN check up. After fawning over my baby, my doctor said five very important words: "How are you REALLY doing?" I was so touched—and hormonal and depressed, though I didn't know it—that I burst into tears.
Out it all came: my terror that I was going to drop the baby, my fears of never feeling well-rested again, my complete bafflement at how I was supposed to keep doing this day after day on so little sleep.
I was lucky that my OB/GYN asked me about my mental health. We covered that before she looked at my incision or checked my blocked milk duct. I was doubly lucky that she offered to write me a prescription for an antidepressant when she realized that my psyche had tipped in a too-dark direction. She pulled out her prescription pad when I told her the escalator story. I told her how I'd been shopping with my 2-week-old daughter and became terrified that she would fall out of my arms on an escalator. A friend had to come pick me up and help me get out of the store.
My doctor kindly walked me through my medication options, advising me how I could both nurse and care for my mental health. When I hesitated, she assured me that I deserved to enjoy my baby and that the medication would help me find the joy amid the darkness.
Every new mother should have the gift of a healthcare provider looking after her mental health. Experts say that one in seven mothers experience postpartum depression, so it's no small affliction.
Care for mothers embarking on motherhood is not a luxury; it's a vital public health need.
Good news recently arrived for families: A government-appointed panel said that it recommended screening for maternal mental illness. This recommendation reflects the growing numbers of women who experience depression, anxiety, OCD and other mental disturbances, following the births of their children. Most importantly, this group acknowledged that postpartum depression, in many cases, starts during pregnancy.
Prior to this recommendation, the 2009 guidelines did not mention depression associated with pregnancy. With a specific recommendation in place, we have much to celebrate as mothers. Policy makers are finally paying attention to what bloggers, mothers in the carpool line and at water coolers have been saying for years: Post- and pre-partum depression and anxiety is real, scary and pervasive. More than half my friends with children reported feeling engulfed and overwhelmed by sadness and depression when they had their little ones. The other half swung the other way into almost-crippling anxiety that kept them exhausted but unable to sleep because they were crackling with nervous energy almost 24/7.
Care, in the form of screening for depression, for mothers embarking on motherhood is not a luxury; it's a vital public health need.
It's not just our incisions or scar tissue that need monitoring. It's also the state of our moods and our mental reserves as we undertake the overwhelming task of caring for a child who will need us around-the-clock for weeks or months.
Afraid that my friends would judge me for giving into medication, I kept my mouth shut.
These screenings will put the onus on doctors to bring up mental health, which is important, because mothers may be reluctant to bring up mental illness. After all, having a baby is supposed to be the most joyous time in a woman's life, so it can be hard to cop to dark, racing or torturous thoughts. These screens will help normalize the mental conditions and assure mothers that they are not unfit for motherhood, but they may need more support or medication or behavioral therapy.
Many mothers keep quiet about their mental distress. I never would have told my OB/GYN if she hadn't asked me the right questions. I thought I was wimpy for being so tired and glum. Afraid that my friends would judge me for giving into medication, I kept my mouth shut.
That stigma wasn't all in my head. Just yesterday, a battle raged over a Facebook post by New York Times bestselling author, Marianne Williamson. Williamson spoke out against the task force's recommendations, saying that women should avoid medication in favor of meditation, prayer, nutritional supports and love. The backlash was fast and furious. Mothers attested to the serious, medical nature of their mental distress and criticized Williamson for implying that women should avoid medication.
To Williamson and to the mothers still suffering I say this: I tried prayer and meditation. I tried talk therapy, organic food and a mom's group. I teetered on the edge of darkness, until my medically-trained OB/GYN intervened and offered me a lifeline.
For that, I am forever grateful.
This new recommendation is a step forward in bringing maternal depression to light. It will help more mothers get help earlier in their pregnancies, and that's a good thing, not just for mamas and their babies but for all of us.