Helen Papalekas, a mother of two, suffered from postpartum depression after she gave birth to her first daughter, Carey, in 1987.
Working in the medical field, Papalekas said it’s easy to see things in other people, but not in yourself. It was hard for her to recognize the severity of her depression and she decided to keep it to herself.
“I was really secretive about it,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone and it was terrible. I was really good at pretending everything was okay when I talked to other people.”
Papalekas was not alone. According to Postpartum Progress Inc, only 15 percent of people with postpartum depression seek professional help.
“It was dangerous,” said Papalekas. “I was definitely having suicidal thoughts. I think if I hadn’t kept telling myself that I had to take care of the baby it could’ve been a lot worse. My husband was in his residency and he was gone all the time. I was by myself a lot.”
Papalekas found herself losing weight rapidly as she had no appetite, but made sure to drink lots of liquids in order to breastfeed.
Today, as her children are grown and will soon have children of their own, she said she wishes she would have gotten help.
“When my kids have babies, I will be screening them constantly for it,” said Papalekas. “It was a hard time and I want people to know my story if it can help encourage them to get the help they need.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, 20 percent of women that give birth every year have symptoms of postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is an illness that can occur after childbirth. Mothers may begin to feel symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, sadness, crying, trouble sleeping and irritability, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“There’s a stigma with mental illness and it was even worse then,” said Papalekas. “It gets better as the years goes on as far as the stigma and not wanting to be labeled mentally ill.”
Recently, there has been a big push to open up the conversation on postpartum depression.
“I see postpartum depression discussed more now among the health care professionals and patients,” said Dr. Taimur Anwar, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Henry Ford Hospital. “And as a result, patients are comfortable talking about it.”
Anwar said that all of his patients are given a postpartum screening after they give birth. In this screening, patients are given a questionnaire to complete.
After the patient completes the questionnaire, the answers are scored and used to determine if there are any signs of depression and if so, the severity.
“If they are depressed then we obviously offer them help and that is initially determining what are their home circumstances; do they have a support system and do they have any previous history of depression?” said Anwar.
Next, he said he offers the patient emotional support by referring them to a psychiatrist, who can address serious needs or prescribe medication.
“Usually you get pretty familiar with your patient because we’re with them a number of times throughout their pregnancy,” said Anwar. “You get very close to them and can pick up what the patient is going through and sometimes they’ll tell you ‘Doc, I’m feeling depressed,’ or you notice the signs and will ask them how they’re doing.”
The goal is to catch the signs early so that the doctor can start the necessary treatment as soon as possible.
“You start a dialogue of discussion and that opens them up to talk,” said Anwar. “There is a stigma to depression. You can explain to them that it is similar to a medical disorder, like appendicitis, and you need to see a doctor for that and there is nothing wrong with that.”
U.S. Legislation on postpartum depression screenings
According to Postpartum Support International, there are no U.S. federal policies that require postpartum screenings after a mother gives birth. Regardless, certain states have adopted legislation and promoted awareness campaigns and task forces that support postpartum care. Michigan has no policy that requires screenings, but has awareness months for postpartum depression.
On November 30, a big stride forward for postpartum depression was made for mothers across the nation. Rep. Katherine Clark’s maternal mental health legislation passed in the House of Representatives. Her bill, Bringing Postpartum Depression out of the Shadows Act, will help mothers suffering with postpartum depression.
With the bill, federal grants will be provided to states to fund screenings of new moms by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, boosting maternal mental health programs.
Beaumont Parenting Program
Lori Polakowski works for Beaumont Hospital as an Individual Family Support Coordinator with the Parenting Program. The Beaumont Parenting Program is offered at three Michigan hospitals in Royal Oak, Grosse Pointe and Troy and provides families with some of the best baby sleeping products available.
The program provides help to new parents as well as serves as a support system for mothers who are suffering from postpartum depression.
“A lot of what our program does is try and support all moms, even if they are not at risk for postpartum, because many moms don’t know that they . . . have any other risk factors and all of a sudden they experience it anyway,” said Polakowski.
The program has two different divisions. The first is to work with any mom who is interested in their services. The other division of the program specifically goes off of the screening.
“What we do is give out a screening to any mom who delivers,” said Polakowski. “The screening is very specific in asking them if they have any mental health history or have been having any negative feelings while they were pregnant.”
The results are scored on four different levels. If a mother scores in the two highest levels, they will get a visit while in the hospital and they will go over the screening and educate them on postpartum depression. Once the mother goes home, they follow up with a phone call to see how they’re doing and let them know about their support group.
The program runs two postpartum adjustment support groups every week and encourages mothers to come to their group for however long they need.
“The groups are free to the community and the moms can just drop in and if they don’t find it to be super helpful, there’s no commitment to have to come back,” said Polawkowski. “Or we’ve got moms that come back for months.”
Polawkowski said the moms are encouraged to bring their babies to the support group or to see a therapist for extra support or medication.
“A lot of times what helps moms out is just to realize, ‘okay I’m not going crazy,'” she said. “‘I’m not the only person in the world feeling this way. There are other people that are going through the same thing that I’m going through,’ and that in it of itself many times can help a mom tremendously.”