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Trigger Warning: Article discusses suicide and infanticide

“Congratulations! Such a beautiful baby — what joy you must be feeling!” While this may often ring true, about 13% of people who give birth experience postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is a serious health condition that, if untreated, may sometimes lead to future episodes of depression and a greater risk of suicide.

What Is Postpartum Depression?

Some sadness or emptiness – mild mood changes – is common for up to two weeks after childbirth. What distinguishes postpartum depression from these “baby blues” is the intensity and duration of the signs and symptoms, including:

  • Feeling distant from and unable to take care of the newborn
  • Crying more than normal
  • Being angry, overly worried, and/or anxious
  • Having no interest in or feelings of bonding with the baby
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, and regular daily activities
  • Thinking of hurting the baby or inflicting self-harm, up to and including infanticide and suicide

Experiencing these symptoms for more than two weeks is an indication of postpartum depression. Underdiagnosed and therefore undertreated, it is a significant mental health condition that needs to be taken seriously, supported, and treated effectively.

Increasing Suicide Rates

Untreated postpartum depression can lead to more significant psychiatric conditions, and sometimes tragic outcomes like attempted suicide, suicide, and infanticide.

Suicide accounted for an estimated 8.4% of deaths in the year after giving birth, according to the most recent data available from 36 different states’ Maternal Mortality Review Committees. Incidences of suicidal ideation and intentional self-harm have increased significantly since 2006. Including suicide deaths in all maternal mortality statistics and publishing statistics about suicide attempts could bring more clarity to the situation. Depending on the research entity, some statistics on maternal mortality will include suicide; others will classify it as incidental and not tied to pregnancy.

Negative Impacts on Child Development

The effects of untreated postpartum depression may extend beyond the mother. If mothers do not feel bonded to or are unable to care for their baby, the baby may not develop that needed bond. Treating postpartum depression can help mitigate the risk that baby will be affected into childhood, causing baby to:

  • Be agitated and cry more
  • Develop behavioral issues
  • Feel increased stress
  • Have learning delays, including delays in language skills
  • Experience difficulties handling different social situations

Screening for Postpartum Depression

Multiple access points exist for opportunities to perform postpartum depression screenings. Pediatricians can perform the screenings during well-baby visits if the mother is the caregiver who attends these visits. The frequency of the visits provide a seamless opportunity to discuss and diagnose postpartum depression.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women have at least one postpartum depression screening during the comprehensive postpartum visit. It also recommends additional postpartum depression screenings if the mother was diagnosed with anxiety or depression during the pregnancy.

Treating Postpartum Depression

A variety of treatments can be used to support people with postpartum depression:

  • Counseling/talk therapy
  • Lifestyle changes, such as making time for exercise, taking a bath, or meditating
  • Creating supportive environments and accessing social supports
  • Postpartum doulas
  • Medications

In 2019, the FDA approved the first drug developed specifically to treat postpartum depression. The approval recognizes postpartum depression’s severe impacts on the mother and child and increases the types of treatment options available for support.

“Families who have experienced postpartum depression know first-hand how challenging it can be for mother, baby, the entire family and the broader support network,” said Dr. Tiffany Inglis, Carelon national medical director for maternal-child and women’s health. “With additional data and screenings, we can do more to connect them to resources needed to treat postpartum depression and move both parent and child to a place of health and wellbeing.”

If you or a loved one is at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

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