Right now, in the United States, as many as 1 in 5 women
suffer from postpartum depression, anxiety or psychosis. Can we think about
that number for a second? Picture the hospital where you gave birth. Every day,
women are coming in, all day and all night, excited or frightened or both, having
their babies, and going home. Every fifth woman who walks out of those doors
will experience the agonizing and even life-threatening symptoms of postpartum
mood disorders. If your hospital was in a large metropolitan area with world-class
healthcare, that woman may receive screening and specialized treatment for her
illness. If not, she may join the hundreds of thousands of women whose
postpartum depression goes unrecognized and untreated every year.
We have to help these women. And now we can. Every single
mom can join the fight against postpartum depression simply by spending 10
minutes on her iPhone. Think you can do that?
In March of this year, researchers at the University of
North Carolina School of Medicine and the consortium Postpartum Depression:
Action Towards Causes and Treatment launched the largest study of postpartum mood
disorders ever. In just the first month, almost 10,000 women have already participated
in the international study, which is being conducted through the device so many
of us can’t live without, the iPhone.
To join the study, women simply need to download the free PPD
ACT app and answer 10 questions about previous or ongoing postpartum symptoms.
Based on their responses, some women will also be asked to participate in a
genetic study. They will receive "spit kits" from the National
Institute of Mental Health in the mail in order to provide saliva samples,
which will help uncover whether genetic factors actually determine who will develop
postpartum depression and who will not.
Samantha Meltzer-Brody, Director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at UNC and one of the
leaders of the study, believes that postpartum depression has a genetic
signature, a set of complex variations among multiple genes that is distinct
from genetic markers for other types of depression.
We do a crappy job in this country taking care of moms... We want real change.
“We think it’s a different animal, in that there’s something
unique about depression that is triggered by childbirth,” says Melzer-Brody. “It’s
a time of immense hormonal fluctuation and a time of such profound change, that
we believe there is a group of women with something that makes them genetically
vulnerable. Right now, we don’t have a way of identifying who’s at risk other
than having a previous history. So, we essentially wait for people to get sick,
and then we try and identify them. If we really understood what the underlying
pathophysiology was, we could develop treatments that were very specific and work
much faster, or prevent it in people at risk.”
The goal of PPD ACT is to enroll 100,000 women from around
the world in the study. The app has been released in both the U.S. and Australia,
and will soon be available in the United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries
as well. The team also plans to distribute iTouches to women’s health clinics
around the US, in order to reach women who do not own iPhones. With all this
genetic information, researchers aim to create a completely new approach to
diagnosing and treating postpartum mood disorders: 1) Design a prospective
screening test that will identify women at risk. 2) Develop innovative
treatments that target the specific biological causes.
Meltzer-Brody imagines a future where pregnant
women can be screened for postpartum depression risk in the same way that they
are routinely tested for gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and about a
million other things. She sees the vast numbers of women whose postpartum
depression is never reported or treated as part of the general neglect of women’s
health in this country. She doesn’t sugar coat it.
“We do a crappy job in this country of taking care of moms,”
Meltzer-Brody says. “We’re the only developed country without a universal
maternity leave. The only one. We kind of like the idea of motherhood and apple
pie, but we really don’t do much to support mothers. Finally, women are
saying enough is enough. We want real change. We want real policy. We want to
have universal screening offered to all mothers everywhere as part of routine
postpartum care. And we also want research and novel ways of trying to address
this.That’s really exciting.”
So, if you could take 10 minutes and help to end the
suffering of millions of moms, would you do it? I hope so! You can do it while you’re
nursing on the couch, standing in line at the grocery store, when your little
one falls asleep on you and movement spells disaster. If we can find that 10
minutes, our own daughters may thank us.