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.