Falling Into The Postpartum Mood Disorder Abyss: A Personal Story

Over the past two days, The New York Times published a series of articles about postpartum depression and other related mood disorders. The first article looked at the science and policy on this topic and highlights a few women’s stories.

Today’s article is about my sister, Cindy Wachenheim, who took her own life in March of 2013 after struggling for six months with postpartum mood disorders. I say mood disorders because it was not just depression (and the fact that there are other postpartum mood disorders in addition to postpartum depression was something about which I was previously completely unaware). She had extreme anxiety about, and obsession with, her baby’s health and she was depressed because she believed she caused him to have serious health problems. Also, according to what I have been told by experts, she may have been psychotic: she was so convinced that something was seriously wrong with her baby — despite doctors telling her otherwise — that she strapped him to her chest when she jumped out of her apartment window, believing, I can only assume, that this was what was best for him. Thank goodness, he survived and is thriving.

Beyond what is written in the article, I think it is important to give more detail and information on some resources and policy activities in Massachusetts, in the hope that this could possibly help others who are facing similar struggles. As is mentioned in the article, I reached out to Cindy’s son’s pediatrician after Cindy had gone to see her multiple times about her concerns.

Pediatricians are key to screening for postpartum mood disorders and making referrals for needed treatment. Most women see their OB a few weeks after giving birth and if everything seems okay at that point then they are sent on their way until the following year’s annual exam.

However, woman bring their infants to see the pediatrician many times over that first year. It is pediatricians who could notice if something seems to not be right with the mother.

There are efforts to have pediatricians more involved in regular screening and referral. I want to mention in particular the MCPAP for Moms program in Massachusetts. This is a terrific resource for pediatricians who need information about referrals and ways to assist moms who they believe are struggling. Also, the state Department of Public Health is currently accepting testimony on its draft regulations to implement a law on health care provider reporting on screening for postpartum depression. You can read the draft regulations and learn how to submit comments on the DPH website.

There are so many more aspects of Cindy’s story that I could talk about — the isolation that must have impacted her mental health (both with no family living nearby and, eventually, the isolation that came with her deep depression); the dangers of falling into the “black hole” of Internet "health" research; the difficulty of trying to find a mental health care provider who is the “right fit” when you are in the midst of a mental health crisis; the societal belief that women should be naturally wonderful mothers and should be supermoms who can handle everything. And, with that, there's the shame and guilt that comes when you realize you can’t handle everything the way you thought you should.

My family and I will always have a deep hole in our hearts because of the loss of Cindy. In her memory and honor, we are speaking up and telling my sister’s story so we can raise awareness, reduce stigma and help others who are struggling with postpartum mood disorders or who have a loved one who is struggling.

Deb Wachenheim is the Health Quality Manager for the Boston-based consumer advocacy group Health Care For All.


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