Crystal McAuley, a 36-year-old mother from Napa, said she powered through the anxiety and depression she felt around her first pregnancy in 2014. It wasn’t until her second son was born that she became overwhelmed.
“It is often described as this magical, happy time where women are just in love with their babies and in love with their new lives,” she said. “If you’re not feeling that 110 percent — and on top of that you’re exhausted, you feel guilty, you’re having a hard time taking care of yourself — it makes you really want to hide.”
So she did. She stopped going out or seeing friends, and said being away from her children felt “excruciating.”
“The best way I can describe the anxiety mentally was like being in a car driving down the highway at a very good clip of speed, probably faster than you should be going, and realizing the breaks are out, all day, every day,” she said.
California advocates want doctors to be more vigilant about spotting the problem and guiding mothers toward help. Bills on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk could require some providers to screen moms for these disorders. Hospitals and other facilities offering deliveries would also have to educate staff about the issue.
If left untreated, maternal mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress can lead new moms to take their own lives, or in rare cases, their children’s lives.
Roughly one in five expectant mothers will receive such a diagnosis either before giving birth or within one year of delivery, according to the California Task Force on the Status of Maternal Mental Health.
Maternal mental health disorders can affect any woman, but research shows it’s more likely to happen to moms living in poverty and those who have a history of depression or other mental illness. Consequences include early delivery or other adverse birth outcomes, poor infant growth and childhood emotional and behavioral problems. Women who lose their babies to stillbirth or miscarriage may also be at risk.
Dr. Shannon Clark, an OBGYN at the UC Davis Medical Center, said screening is important because some moms are reluctant to talk to providers about it. They don’t want to be seen as unfit mothers.
“They think if they bring it up, there’s going to be an assumption,” she said.
But on a screening they can talk about signs, like ‘‘ ‘I feel more anxious than I usually feel’ or ‘I’ve been crying for no apparent reason’ …. These are just general questions that can open the conversation,” Clark said.
McAuley said it wasn’t until her doctor screened her for postpartum depression and connected her to therapy that she started to feel better. She eased her way into work as a maternal mental health advocate. And she joined a few social groups with other moms.
“The day that I felt what I can best describe as a crack in whatever was surrounding me and holding me and keeping me captive was after I had really gotten myself out and reconnected and resocialized,” she said. “I really didn’t realize how much social interaction really can lift you up.”
The governor already signed a bill this summer requiring the California Department of Public Health to apply for federal funding for a maternal mental health campaign, and the state legislature recently approved a resolution making May an awareness month for postpartum depression and related disorders.
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