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Here's Why This Postpartum Depression PSA Is a Total Fail

Photograph by Twenty20

If you're trying to help someone, you probably shouldn't tick them off first—least of all if you're trying to help new moms suffering with postpartum depression. But that's exactly what an ad campaign for a biotech company has done. Though the company is actually trying to help women with postpartum depression, people are up in arms about how they're trying to bring awareness to the serious condition that up to 15 percent of new moms face.

In the ad campaign everyone's talking about, Sage Therapeutics stuck pacifiers in the mouths of noticeably distraught, sometimes crying women for their campaign to raise awareness of postpartum depression (PPD). The images are accompanied with text that reads, “When it comes to postpartum depression, silence sucks.”

It doesn't take a genius to realize why Sage Therapeutics, which is developing and testing a promising experimental drug for PPD, chose the rather simplistic imagery. Postpartum depression affects new mothers, who often don’t talk about their symptoms because they are ashamed so they suffer in silence; hence, the pacifier used as a silencer.

On Instagram, the company explained:

“We chose this image to show the silence associated with PPD, which is often a result of a woman’s feelings of guilt, shame or fear, in an effort to spark a conversation. We are committed to breaking the silence around PPD and hope this campaign encourages women and their doctors to have an open and honest conversation about PPD and screening, while pregnant and after delivery. We appreciate your feedback as this forms part of the very important dialog we are hoping to spark about this often hidden condition.”

Critics of the campaign, which includes posters, ads and buses plastered with the images, are downright appalled and have certainly not kept silent, accusing the campaign of “infantilizing” women suffering from postpartum depression.

“Postpartum depression is an issue that is very polarizing (since it is often deemed ‘imaginary’ by male-based media), and isolating for the women who experience it," wrote one commenter. "Showing adult women sucking on pacifiers while crying does nothing to legitimize the emotions experienced by women during postpartum depression, but rather, diminishes and trivializes their experiences.”

PPD is the most common birth complication and can be devastating if left untreated. In the U.S., it affects 10 to 20 percent of women who have given birth—but keep in mind that many women are never properly diagnosed because they were never screened.

Raising awareness of PPD is crucial, so why complain about any campaign that attempts to do that? Well, although this particular campaign is about raising awareness, it’s hard to dismiss the fact that it is being sponsored by a company that is developing a drug to treat PPD. No, the campaign is not about selling the medication, which still needs more testing before it's even brought to the Food and Drug Administration for approval. But let's not pretend that the long-term goal isn't to get the medication approved and sold.

If the plan is to get the drug approved, raising awareness about PPD will eventually pay off for Sage Therapeutics, right? This isn’t your average do-gooder public service announcement.

Also, how much is this campaign actually doing to help women who are experiencing PPD? All it tells them to do is speak up about it. Easier said than done given the stigma surrounding not being absolutely ecstatic about every aspect of having just given birth to a precious baby.

If you're totally not put off by the ads and go to the campaign’s website, you are met with the absurd declaration: “Speaking up starts with knowing the facts.” Wait one damn second. So you have to know what postpartum depression is ahead of time? It’s the sufferer’s responsibility to know how to diagnose themselves?

Postpartum depression is a mental health disorder. You are not in your “right mind" when you are going through it, so maybe “speaking up” should start with medical practitioners asking questions and screening as a matter of course, rather than waiting for a woman who's in a world of distress and trying to act like she’s not falling apart to know the facts.

In the end, it seems that Sage Therapeutics is doing just what it intended to do: raise awareness about PPD and get people talking about it. Let’s take the good and learn from the bad.

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