Post partum depression

In last week's column I discussed the hormonally triggered depression that can occur as women enter into menopause and I thought it fitting to continue this week with the other most likely time in a woman's life to develop a mood disorder, the postpartum period.

Recently passed legislation in New Jersey has brought postpartum depression into the spotlight once again and with positive results. A new law taking effect in October will require physicians in this state to educate expectant mothers and their families about postpartum depression and also to screen new mothers for the condition.

New Jersey is the first state to enact such legislation, but will hopefully not be the last as it is a very positive step in the direction of moving mental illness out of the shadows of stigma and into the mainstream.

Although most people know that postpartum depression exists, there are still many who don't want to talk about it openly. Societal expectations surrounding motherhood and becoming a mother often place unspoken pressure on women to bury negative feelings and many don't seek help even when they need it.

Pregnancy and the postpartum period are times when women are most vulnerable to develop or relapse into mental illness. Extreme changes in hormone levels affect brain chemistry as well as most other body systems and often trigger symptoms of depression or anxiety. Also, the enormous life change, lack of sleep and stress of becoming a parent can cause a woman to be more susceptible to a mood disorder.

In fact, postpartum depression is quite common. Most women experience mild symptoms after giving birth. These can include sadness, weepiness, lack of concentration and moodiness. This is not considered a disorder though because the symptoms are mild and subside in a few days.

As many as 10 or 12 percent of women will develop full blown postpartum depression and this is a condition that requires treatment with either therapy, medication or a combination. A very small number of women experience an extreme condition known as postpartum psychosis which can involve hallucinations and thoughts of harming oneself or the baby.

Postpartum depression can come on gradually and may begin at any time during pregnancy, immediately following birth or within the first year of motherhood.

Risk factors for developing postpartum depression include previous postpartum depression, personal or family history of depression or other mental illness, a difficult pregnancy, high levels of stress, depression or anxiety during pregnancy, mood changes while taking birth control or fertility medication or social isolation.

In Canada it is not legally required for physicians to educate expectant or new mothers about postpartum illness, although many do. If you are pregnant and have not discussed mental health issues with your doctor yet, don't be afraid to ask for information. There are many resources available as well as effective treatment if necessary.

Several good websites exist including the New Jersey department of health site at and the Mood Disorders Society of Canada at

Above all, if you are concerned about getting postpartum depression or believe you may be experiencing it, ask for help. Depression is not a sign of a weak character and it does not mean you will not be a wonderful mother. It is a medical illness and treatment is available.


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