Local maternal mental health advocates are sounding the alarm about postpartum depression and educating the public about the “very scary” postpartum psychosis condition after a Duxbury woman allegedly killed her two children and tried to take her own life.
While postpartum depression is estimated to impact 1 in 5 pregnancies, postpartum psychosis is believed to affect 1 in 500 pregnancies, according to Serena Rosa, a nurse practitioner who has been working with postpartum mothers for more than a decade.
The rare condition can include hallucinations, thoughts of harming yourself or a loved one, suicidal thoughts, and intrusive thoughts. It’s amplified by sleep deprivation, which is common in the postpartum period. The condition can turn very quickly when somebody experiences prolonged periods of insomnia.
“It’s very scary, it turns quick, and it’s very dangerous,” Rosa, an assistant professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, told the Herald on Thursday.
In addition to insomnia, other warning signs include a loss of interest in eating, showering and bonding with the baby.
“They could make statements that just sound really strange,” Rosa said. “I’ve had patients who have said they thought they were seeing their baby as an animal, and that their baby was flying.
“Anything that seems very odd is definitely reason to call their medical provider and share that with the medical provider out of concern,” she added. “Sometimes, the person going through it is in too much of a dark space to call, so it’s OK for a loved one to have that conversation with the medical provider out of love.”
She’s had patients explain that the intrusive thoughts make them believe they are the last person on earth, that something terrible is happening, and therefore, they need to end their children’s life in order to protect them.
Recent research showed that every person who delivers a baby experiences the “baby blues,” while the CDC estimates 20% of mothers battle postpartum depression.
“That is significant,” Rosa said. “That means if a medical provider is seeing 20 mothers a day, four will have postpartum depression, which could lead to something more serious if not treated.”
The symptoms of postpartum depression are similar to symptoms of depression, but may also include: crying more often than usual, feelings of anger, withdrawing from loved ones, feeling distant from your baby, worrying or feeling overly anxious, thinking about hurting yourself or your baby, and doubting your ability to care for your baby.
“Postpartum depression is treatable. We have great treatments available,” Rosa said, noting that includes the feel-good hormone serotonin along with therapy.
A bill at the Massachusetts State House proposes that the state cover screenings for postpartum depression in parents of newly born children during any visit to a pediatrician’s office for up to 1 year after the child’s birth.
Jamie Zahlaway Belsito, a former state representative who founded the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance nonprofit, is a survivor of postpartum depression. Belsito on Thursday emphasized the need to educate mothers and families that “there is help out there.”
“You’re not alone,” Belsito said. “You might not feel well, and it’s fine. Help is available, and support systems are ready to help.”
The 24/7 National Maternal Mental Health Hotline is 1-833-943-5746 (1-833-9-HELP4MOMS). People who are in suicidal crisis should call or text 988.