Today marks the beginning of Mental Illness Awareness week, a chance to focus on mental disorders: signs and symptoms, how to get help, stigma, hope and recovery, and the impact of mental illness on lives, families, workplaces, and society.
This week, we want to bring to your attention the impact of postpartum depression as a mental illness on women, and help end the stigma surrounding postpartum depression.
Each year, more than 11 percent of the nearly 4 million expectant mothers in the U.S. will experience some form of postpartum depression [1, 2]. Unlike the “baby blues” - which can affect almost 50 percent of new mothers and usually passes within two weeks of delivery - postpartum depression is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition . Although the symptoms of postpartum depression usually emerge within the first 6 to 8 weeks, they can occur up to 12 months after delivery. The signs and symptoms vary widely but may include excessive crying, severe mood swings, anxiety, reduced concentration, withdrawal from family and friends, anxiety and panic attacks, intense irritability and anger, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. Postpartum depression is scary and lonely, and can leave a mother with feelings of guilt and incompetence.
Postpartum depression doesn’t just affect the mother; it disrupts the whole family. When a mother who suffers from postpartum depression produces less oxytocin (the hormone involved in affectionate behavior) she may inadvertently give less attention to her baby . Similarly, oxytocin is involved in milk production, so a mother may struggle with breastfeeding, which can affect the baby’s nutrition and development . Fathers, too, may feel higher stress or could become depressed themselves as a consequence of their partner’s postpartum depression .
Researchers don’t understand the basis of postpartum depression, nor how it differs from depression at other times. Studies suggest that the dramatic loss in estrogen and progesterone after delivery is somehow responsible for postpartum depression . However, genetic factors, depression, mood disorders, a history of abuse, or a lack of a social support network may put a woman at higher risk for the illness . More awareness and acceptance is needed to fully understand the extent and lifelong effects of postpartum depression on mothers, babies, and families as a whole. As more people talk about postpartum depression, more details about the illness can be uncovered and additional attention to this issue can be gained.
For more information and resources on postpartum depression, visit SWHR’s website.
4. Stuebe AM, Grewen K, Pedersen CA, Propper C, Meltzer-Brody S: Failed lactation and perinatal depression: common problems with shared neuroendocrine mechanisms? Journal of women's health. 2012;21:264-272.
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The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR ®) is a national non-profit based in Washington D.C. that is widely recognized as the thought-leader in promoting research on biological differences in disease and is dedicated to transforming women’s health through science, advocacy, and education.