Five years ago, Mount Pleasant mom Elaine DeaKyne went to her obstetrician’s office. She’d given birth to her first daughter two months prior, and DeaKyne wondered if she might have postpartum depression. The nurse asked her a series of questions about how she was doing as a new mom, including “Do you think you would ever hurt yourself or your baby?”
Clearly, the nurse was uncomfortable asking the question, DeaKyne recalled. And she wondered how to answer such a loaded question.
“I was having very scary thoughts about me hurting myself and my new baby,” DeaKyne said. “I never felt that I would act on any of my thoughts, but I was so terrified over the thoughts that they prevented me from doing anything. I didn’t want to walk her because what if pushed her into the street? I couldn’t drive over a bridge because what if I pulled over and jumped off? I couldn’t use a knife because what if I stabbed myself?”
She knew in her heart she wouldn’t act on those thoughts, but still she hesitated to share the truth, worried someone would take her baby away.
“Before I could get up the courage to answer the question, the nurse looked at me, shook her head a little and said, ‘No, you would never think that.’ She answered the question for me, and I was devastated,” DeaKyne said. “What kind of mom would think those things? And, now, look at this nurse making me feel horrible for thinking them.”
Fortunately for DeaKyne, her doctor asked the same question and didn’t take her “no” at face value.
“She saw my pain and asked me again,” DeaKyne said. “She didn’t answer the question for me. She let me take my time and finally answer truthfully. And then she got me the help I so badly needed.”
Today, DeaKyne – now a mom to two daughters – is the executive director of Postpartum Support Charleston, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating the stigma surrounding maternal mental illness and providing support and resources to women suffering from postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD and psychosis during and after pregnancy.
According to Postpartum Support International, one in seven women will suffer from postpartum depression.
“There’s a large amount of stigma around having any mental illness in the first place, and, then, if you add on top of that being a mom, it makes it even harder for people to talk about,” said Dr. Constance Guille, director of the Women’s Reproductive Behavioral Health Program at the Medical University of South Carolina. “If people talk about this as a normal process that can happen, the more we can destigmatize this illness.”
“I don’t think a lot of times women recognize they have these symptoms,” Dr. Guille added. “The more people are educated, the more they can help women recognize it in themselves.”
Common symptoms include feelings of sadness or depression, anxiety, irritability or anger, difficulty bonding with the baby, trouble eating or sleeping and even feeling “out of control.” Women may also feel as if they shouldn’t have become a mother or worry they may hurt themselves or their baby.
One challenge, Dr. Guille said, is that media reports often portray mothers with postpartum depression as the mom who kills her children. In those cases, mothers have a much more severe postpartum psychosis – a serious but more rare form of maternal mental illness.
It’s also important for women to understand that postpartum depression and anxiety are largely treatable with counseling and often with medication.
Dr. Guille said MUSC created the Women’s Reproductive Behavioral Health Program to provide pregnant and postpartum women with better access to treatment and to providers experienced in treating maternal mental health. Many women benefit from therapy and learning tools that will help them moderate their mood and feel better. For more severe cases, Dr. Guille said they will discuss medication options.
Postpartum Support Charleston has a network of PPD survivors who lead support groups and are available to talk with mothers going through PPD. For a mom in the midst of depression or anxiety, hearing a “me, too” can be a tremendous lifeline.
“Peer support is so critical in a mother’s recovery,” DeaKyne said. “Connecting with a mom who has been through the same experiences can be so reassuring to a mom who is suffering. It helps her feel like she isn’t alone and that things will get better.”
Holly Fisher is a board member of Postpartum Support Charleston and a PPD survivor.