What if a medication designed to help keep you mentally healthy also prevented you from bonding with your new baby? It turns out medications for postpartum depression, namely antidepressants, may have this startling effect on some new moms.
Postpartum depression (PPD) affects one in eight women in the United States and can seriously impair a mother’s ability to care for herself and her child. Symptoms of PPD include withdrawal from family and friends, a loss of interest in activities, extreme emotions like rage, sadness and guilt, frequent bouts of crying, difficulty bonding with a new baby—and they typically last longer than a few weeks.
Treatment with psychiatric medication is widely seen as an important step in keeping a new mother healthy and safe, but that same treatment may also inhibit her ability to connect with her child.
Known as "SSRI-induced apathy syndrome," the dulling of emotions caused by some antidepressants isn’t widely understood. In fact, little research has been done to study this problematic symptom of what is considered standard postpartum depressive therapy. Most cited studies are well over a decade old, and give little insight into why some women receiving treatment for PPD develop apathy while others don't.
A 2004 study published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that 20 percent of the patients evaluated with depression who took antidepressants reported feelings of apathy. Another study by researchers from the Department of Behavioral Health and Psychiatry at North Colorado Medical Center found evidence that the side effect of apathy in patients with depression who took antidepressants was likely dependent upon their medication dosage, and—the best news of all—totally reversible.
The major question, then, is whether or not moms who are diagnosed with postpartum depression should avoid taking prescribed antidepressant medications.
Avoiding treatment of postpartum depression isn’t a viable option.
Dr. Amy Salisbury, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry for Alpert Medical School at Brown University doesn’t think avoiding treatment is the solution. The risks of untreated depression are far greater than the potential negative side effects from antidepressant medication, she told the New York Times. While she points out that every diagnosis is unique, there are checks and balances to prevent new moms from feeling emotionally unattached from her child. Careful supervision by a qualified psychiatrist and cautious dosing, along with frequent check-ups to evaluate the efficacy of the medication, are all necessary in making sure moms are receiving the proper treatment for PPD.
Avoiding treatment of postpartum depression isn’t a viable option. In 2016, friends and family were stunned when 32-year-old Allison Goldstein dropped her 4-month-old infant off at daycare and then took her own life. In an email to her friends and family, drafted shortly before her suicide, the new mother apologized for not knowing how to describe the pain she was feeling, and most importantly, how to get help.
While symptoms of postpartum depression can be overwhelming, the good news is that they are treatable and with the right medical and psychological help, moms who are suffering can find much-needed relief. Although it may sound scary to take a medication that could have the potential to hinder a mother’s ability to feel close to her own child, it isn’t anywhere near as awful as the pain a family would feel if they lost their mother to suicide caused by PPD.
The solution, while not always simple, is awareness. It's important that moms recognize the symptoms of postpartum depression and feel comfortable speaking up if they notice any sense of disconnect or an inability to bond with their newborn. Medical professionals are trained to help moms get the best treatment possible so they can develop a natural, healthy maternal bond with their child.