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08/15/2013

Dead Babies, Dead Mothers. Let’s start by reducing the stigma of mental illness

Andrea Kalfoglou, Ph.D.

Last month, a tragedy unfolded in Manitoba, Canada.  On Wednesday, July 24th two children, a 3 year old and an infant, were found badly injured and alone in their home.  They both died from their injuries.  A search ensued for the missing mother of the children, and Lisa Gibson’s body was found in the Red River three days later.  While an investigation is underway to explain this tragedy, sources are reporting that Lisa Gibson was being treated for postpartum depression.

It is an all too familiar story.  Death makes headlines.  But for every death, there are thousands of women who are suffering.  Postpartum depression is the number one complication of pregnancy.  One in eight women will experience depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy or after birth.  In rare cases (1 or 2 per 1000), women will develop postpartum psychosis (PPP).  PPP is much more common in women with a history of bipolar disorder or previous psychotic episodes.  A woman with PPP is experiencing a break from reality.  In her psychotic state, the delusions and beliefs make sense to her.  Among women who develop postpartum psychosis, there is a 5 percent infanticide or suicide rate associated with the illness.  In fact, suicide causes more maternal deaths than any other pregnancy-related complication.

Comments left on webpages in response to news articles about this tragedy demonstrate that we have a long way to go before the public really understands PPP.  Here’s one example:

Aug. 2, 2013
If the mother was so depressed and wanted to kill herself then she should have taken the kids to relatives or to a place where they would not be victims of her killing. This craziness that she is a victim in the same light of those poor babies is utterly asinine and as a Canadian I’m deeply offended that the agenda in this country seems to let these types of women get away with this with some kind of psychiatric diagnosis to excuse or forgive their cruel acts. Had she been the husband that did this I don’t think there would be much balanced excuses for him. Either way when an adult violates a child’s life or takes it, it is disgusting. To pretend that she is a victim in the same standing as her poor kids defies commonsense and logic. This country has been hijacked by advocates with priorities completely mixed up.

It is just this sort of attitude that makes women suffering from perinatal mental illness feel a sense of shame and guilt.  As a result, they may hide the full extent of their suffering and symptoms from family members and health-care providers.  Society teaches us that pregnancy and caring for a new baby are supposed to be blissful times.  When these times are instead filled with anxiety, sadness, insomnia, or horrible invasive thoughts, women often don’t know where to turn.

Fortunately, survivors have banded together to provide women with a place to turn for information, advice and support.  Postpartum Support International (PSI) www.postpartum.net has chapters in many states, and there is a national hotline that will work to help women find resources in their local community.  1-800-944-4PPD.

My final thought is, we need the village.  Women who give birth today are often left at home alone to care for their infants and often additional children while they physically recover from birth or major surgery.  Do you know a pregnant woman or new mother?  Ask her how she is doing, and then take the time to really listen.

 

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