As many as 20% of women experience depression and anxiety during or after pregnancy, experts said
Mothers in low-income communities are at higher risk for depression and anxiety
Integrating mental health care into women's health care is one way to reach them
They are tragedies impossible to comprehend. Over the past three months, three New York City mothers have allegedly tossed their babies out windows, and they’ve fallen to their deaths.
In the most recent case, Tenisha Fearon, 27, reportedly screamed “We’re all going to die” in front of her other children before allegedly throwing her 6-month-old daughter out the window of her sixth-floor apartment.
Fearon was charged with murder in the death; she’s in police custody and was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, according to CNN affiliate WABC. En route to her first court appearance, CNN affiliate WCBS reported, she made a comment to her godmother, Louella Hatch.
“She said, ‘I tried to tell you Miss Louella,’ but I don’t understand,” Hatch said.
The godmother said she had seen the family one day before the deadly incident and everything seemed OK. She now believes her godchild, whom she said usually appeared happy and confident, was suffering from postpartum depression but never spoke up.
“My belief is she was sick and just didn’t tell anybody,” Hatch said. “This is a disease and nobody detects it.”
We don’t know what Fearon might be experiencing. What we do know is that as many as 20% of women – one in five – will suffer from some form of depression, mood or anxiety disorder during or after pregnancy, according to experts I spoke with who work with women.
The spectrum of illnesses goes beyond depression to include anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and in the rarest and most serious cases, postpartum psychosis. Extreme cases of that illness tend to garner national media attention, although postpartum psychosis affects a very small number of moms – just one or two of every 1,000 new mothers.
Women in low-income communities are more at risk for postpartum depression or any other form of pregnancy-related mental illness during or after pregnancy, according to the research.
Mothers who received Medicaid benefits for their delivery were more likely to report postpartum depressive symptoms, according to a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2010 study by the University of Rochester Medical Center and published in the journal Pediatrics found that more than 50% of low-income mothers living in urban areas met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression at some point between two weeks and 14 weeks after delivery.
And yet, for a host of reasons including access, financial barriers, stigma and cultural differences, these mothers are often not getting the treatment they need.
The stigma of mental illness
Lynne McIntyre, manager of the maternal health program at Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care in Washington, D.C., can cite plenty of examples of how the stigma of a mood or anxiety disorder during or after pregnancy keeps women from seeking treatment. Mary’s Center provides care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, and most of the women who use its services have low incomes and come from Latino, African American and East African communities.
“I have had African American friends tell me, so it was firsthand, they were on the receiving end of messages including, ‘That’s a white woman’s disease. We don’t get that,’ ” said McIntyre, herself a survivor of postpartum depression. She was miserable and suicidal when her older son was born nearly 11 years ago. That experience led her to devote her life to helping women with the disease.
She has heard from a woman who said that people at her church asked her, “What have you been doing wrong that God would do this to you, that he would let this happen to you?” Other women have heard comments such as “Why did you have a baby if you didn’t want one? You should just sort of get yourself together and take care of your baby and don’t be so self-indulgent,’ ” said McIntyre, a mother of two.
Depression is also taboo in many cultures, said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place in Seattle, an overnight shelter for families. (It’s not affiliated with Mary’s Center.) It serves people from multiple backgrounds and countries.
“It brings shame upon you and your family forever if you were to talk about the depression and so that is a definite hurdle to get over,” she said.
Women in low income communities may not step forward to seek help out of fear of what might happen to their babies.
“There’s a fear that if one opens up … that child protective services would become involved, and it’s not uncommon for women to fear the extreme that their children will be taken away from them,” said Dr. Judy Greene, director of women’s mental health at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York.
Sonia Murdock, co-founder and executive director of Postpartum Resource Center of New York, said she and her colleagues often have to reassure women that their children won’t be taken away if they seek help.
“We are helping to educate these women and to connect them then to the help and the support they need to get better, and to let them know it’s a sign of good parenting when they are taking care of themselves so they can be there to best help take care of their baby,” Murdock said.
Growing awareness of postpartum depression
Murdock devoted her life to raising awareness about these issues after her sister battled postpartum psychosis 20 years ago. When her sister’s husband took her to the emergency room after she had a psychotic break, nobody – from the psychiatrists to the social workers – gave her family a clear diagnosis, said Murdock.
She finally started to understand what was happening to her sister when a janitor came up to her in the hospital’s family room. The janitor told her that he stopped his own sister from throwing her baby out the window and that her sister would be OK.
“I always say he was our family’s first guardian angel,” Murdock said.
But 20 years later, there are still far too many women and men who don’t understand that mood and anxiety disorders during and after pregnancy are real. They are among most common medical complications related to having a baby, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“People come to me and they’re like, ‘I’m a social worker and I suffer from postpartum depression and I had no idea,’ so if a social worker’s telling you that, we know there is a problem. We have a crisis on our hands,” said Nitzia Logothetis, founder and executive chairwoman of the Seleni Institute, a nonprofit focused on serving the reproductive and maternal mental health care needs of women.
“So I think it’s really about changing the conversation and getting the word out, educating people.”
Seleni does bimonthly trainings with social workers, nurses, doulas – anyone who is involved with looking after pregnant women or women who have given birth – on how to treat, diagnosis and screen for depression or other mental illnesses.
That same kind of training takes place at Mary’s Center and helps reach women it might not reach otherwise, said McIntyre, who regularly trains everyone from the medical providers to the paraprofessionals who do home visits to the mental health care therapists.
“You never know who is going to be that staff member or that provider that she really feels connected to, that she is going to let her guard down too a little bit,” said McIntyre.
“It might not be the pediatrician that she feels like she can open up to. It might be the midwife that she runs into in the hallway when she brings the baby to the pediatrician because we’re all in the same place or it might be the home visitor that for some reason she feels a connection with the person who is a paraprofessional.”
Normalizing postpartum depression and the other mental illnesses associated with pregnancy – and communicating how mood and anxiety disorders are among the most common complications of pregnancy – are vital to getting women to feel comfortable opening up, they said.