Recently a friend of mine, at age 30, had her second baby. One day out of the blue I asked her if she was having any symptoms of postpartum depression, knowing that with her first child, she had been fine in that area. But something told me to ask, and I’m glad I did. “YES! She responded. I have never cried so much in my life. I honestly thought postpartum depression was made up before this, but it is very real. Fortunately, she had already told her husband and together they were getting her the help she needed. Happily, her postpartum depression never turned into postpartum psychosis, which, for many moms, has been fatal. In the past, when I’ve written articles on postpartum psychosis (like the story of Jenny Gibbs Bankston), I’ve gotten the, “Oh, stop trying to scare people. Postpartum psychosis is RARE.” While that is not totally false when you measure the total number of postpartum women in the population, here’s a “fun” statistic that is TOTALLY TRUE – suicide accounts for a full 20% of postpartum deaths. One in five women who die after giving birth do so by their OWN HAND because of severe postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.
That doesn’t sound terribly rare to me.
“It’s a significant problem, and it is certainly something that, as a perinatal psychiatrist, is what keeps me up at night,” Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody who runs the University of North Carolina’s Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, told the Huffington Post recently.
It’s something that keeps Karla up at night, too. The HuffPost article goes on to tell Karla’s story – or that of her sister, Kari, who had her second baby in 2010. For the first couple weeks after the new baby’s birth, Kari seemed normal – just tired while caring for a newborn AND a three-year-old, as an mom would be. But the, Kari’s things took a turn, and Kari sought out medical help for anxiety. She was prescribed medication but that didn’t help. She could not sleep at all, even when the baby did, and she began posting in online forums at night, looking to connect with other moms who were experiencing the same thing.
But her depression got worse and worse, and soon she reached out to her sister Karla, over Labor Day weekend. She told Karla she was thinking of hurting herself. The family sprang into action. Karla and Kari’s parents picked up Kari and her kids and took them to their house. Karla arrived on Monday, Labor Day, and they made an appointment for Kari to see a doctor first thing on Wednesday.
Kari’s family didn’t know it yet, but their loving attention was not enough. Postpartum psychosis had already won, and that Tuesday – less than 24 hours before her doctor’s appointment, Kari died by suicide. She had reached out for help, she had ALL the support literally surrounding her, and it wasn’t enough. Like many who suffer from postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, even though she had asked for help, the psychosis kept her from revealing how desperate she REALLY was.
“I mean it was so fast, that was the thing I was so surprised about. It happened so fast… she just spiraled,” Karla (who asked her last name not be used) told HuffPost. “It went from having the baby to I’m not getting any sleep to I’m really having a tough time getting sleep and I’m anxious to I want to harm myself.”
The truth is, once a woman with postpartum depression has admitted that she has had thoughts of hurting herself, she needs to enter a protective hospital environment immediately. And the fear of having their children taken from them, shame, and also the voices of mental illness keep women from admitting they need this level of help. And many, many times that has deadly consequences.
So, my friends, I ask that you, with me, become part of a GRASSROOTS movement to care for each other by sharing and spreading the word about postpartum depression and psychosis. If you are pregnant, talk with your husband and loved ones about making a written plan of action if you express postpartum feelings of self-harm or harming the baby. ASK your postpartum friends the HARD questions, even if you have no reason to suspect. And ADVOCATE for those who are suffering. Go to doctor’s appointments. Help them care for their children. Build them up and gave unconditional love to cast out the shame.
Women, we can’t be silent about this. Only TOGETHER can we tame the stigma that comes with postpartum mental illness.
Honor these moms: three women who died by suicide due to postpartum psychosis, whose stories I’ve covered: