The day my niece came home with her first baby a few years ago, she had enough literature in her tote bag, you’d have thought she was coming from a seminar. Mixed in with sample products, coupons, well-baby guidelines, breastfeeding information, the consequences of shaking a baby and schedules for pediatric appointments was something about the risk of post-partum depression for some women.
I thought: How things have changed from a generation ago. How nice that new parents — mothers and fathers — are made aware early that there is a flip side to maternity, and that for a good many women it is not unalloyed joy. How nice that my niece and other young mothers don’t have to figure it out on their own that there could be more to the listlessness and the sudden fits of crying than simple exhaustion; that the confusion, dread and sadness that won’t lift may not be just from lack of experience with the helpless new life that demands all their energy. How nice that they won’t have to muddle through, wondering when or how they would “grow out of it” the way well-meaning friends and family promise will happen with experience.
Yes, things have changed — knowledge, for example, and awareness and candor about a mental condition that strikes with varying severity. But things haven’t changed enough yet to prevent the sting of tragedies (a new mother dead by her own hand; children ignored or worse; family lives out of kilter) that results when depression is undiagnosed or untreated in mothers. In one study of women diagnosed as depressive, fewer than half recognized their symptoms as depression.
Studies indicate that in any given year, roughly 12 percent of all women present symptoms of depression. An estimated one-third of women, during the years they are having and raising children, show symptoms of depression. Depression is common across all demographic and economic groups, but the rate of the disorder is higher for white women, mothers of very young children, immigrants and mothers who have low levels of education and income. Women in poverty are three times as likely to have depression than other mothers.
In Summit County, such statitistics are all too familiar, not only to public health organizations but to county agencies such as Children Services and the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, which has taken on maternal depression as a top priority.
It is comforting, in a way, to think about the “baby blues” as if it were a sudden onset, emerging with the stresses related to childbirth and dissipating within a few months as we get the hang of motherhood. But researchers find that maternal depression actually is present long before birth and persists in some cases in mild but chronic form for two or more years.
It is not hard to understand why health and child development researchers regard maternal depression as a serious public health problem, with potentially damaging consequences for children.
A mother struggling in the fog of depression may not be up to doing consistently the things that foster emotional bonding with a child, for instance, being attentive to a child’s physical needs or providing the interactions — the cuddling, the conversation and so on — that are so crucial to healthy emotional and cognitive development.
Researchers have found among other effects that children with depressive mothers are more likely than others to have cognitive delays (such as language use), more likely to exhibit behavior problems and more likely themselves to suffer a depressive episode at some point.
We know that for many mothers, depression, post-partum and beyond, is not a “moody” phase that will pass with time but a treatable mental illness.
We know that unrecognized and untreated, maternal depression could interfere with the emotional development, behavior and learning of children.
We know that children whose emotional and cognitive growth are impaired become everybody’s problem sooner or later.
If something is a public health issue for children, it becomes everybody’s business to help build a network of community supports to help mothers recognize the symptoms of their malady and keep a paralyzing illness at bay.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.