When I see children in my pediatric practice for behavior problems, I often hear stories from mothers who struggled terribly when their children were very young infants. A most dramatic example of this was a mother with severe postpartum depression whose father died suddenly when her baby was four months old. Much to my astonishment, she described being relieved by this event. It wasn't because she didn’t love her father. Rather, in sharing the grief with her siblings, mother and extended family, she no longer felt so completely alone.
A Massachusetts law passed this summer calls attention to the public health problem of postpartum depression (PPD). The most common complication of pregnancy, extensive research has demonstrated its significant long term effects on a child’s development, with increased risk for behavior problems in childhood and depression in adolescence.
The new law requires Massachusetts health insurers to submit annual reports on their efforts to screen for postpartum depression. The department of Public Health will develop regulations and policies to address postpartum depression. In addition the law calls for a special commission to come up with policy recommendations to prevent, detect and treat postpartum depression.
The Boston Globe editorial board endorsed this legislation with the following statement: "Early detection could stave off far more serious problems for mothers and their babies, whose well-being is deeply linked to the first few months of care. And universal screening would ensure that no woman falls through the cracks. The sooner new mothers can be diagnosed, the sooner they will recover."
The critical step in bringing this last statement from a wish to a reality is to find effective treatment for PPD. Ideally an intervention would both improve a mother’s depression and positively impact on her child’s development. Unfortunately is it far from clear exactly how to accomplish this goal.
Last weekend, I learned all about the latest research on the subject of postpartum depression as part of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate Program that I have described in previous posts. I was eager to learn from these world experts about effective treatment. These researchers, however, described difficulty defining, in a way that would be feasible for a well designed research study, what an effective intervention for PPD would look like.
Perhaps the mother I described above offers a clue. Being understood by a person you love is one of our most powerful yearnings. The need for understanding is part of what makes us human. When our feelings are validated, we know that we’re not alone. The truth of this statement is reflected by such sources as literature, philosophy and religion.
The necessary intervention, therefore, is perhaps more of a societal intervention. The most important component of an effective treatment for PPD may be that a new mother have an opportunity to be understood. She needs to feel supported over time in relationships that are of value to her. When partner, family members and friends are not sufficient for this role, or when there are enormous strains on these other relationships, the disciplines are available to support a mother include social workers, educators and primary care clinicians. These are among the lowest paid professionals in our society.
The law promoting PPD screening is a small step in the right direction. But in addition to focusing on the specifics of treatment interventions, it is critical to maintain a larger focus on the value we as a society place on the role of mother.