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The Lonely Fight Against Postpartum Depression

While celebrities like Hayden Panettiere have recently begun opening up about their struggles with the condition, a lack of education and resources means the majority of mothers with postpartum depression are left to battle the illness on their own.
May 17, 2016, 9:04pm
Photo by Raymond Forbes via Stocksy

Last week, Hayden Panettiere, star of ABC's now-canceled drama Nashville, announced she was re-entering rehab to treat postpartum depression after initial treatment in October. Panettiere, who has spoken publicly about living with the condition, said she needed to treat her illness "holistically," rather than rely on "unhealthy coping mechanisms."

According to the American Psychological Association, up to one in seven women in the United States will experience postpartum depression—a maternal mental illness that can affect a parent's ability to function or care for their child. Postpartum depression can appear days or months after childbirth and last months—if not longer—when left untreated.


Unlike Panettiere, the majority of mothers with postpartum depression are left to struggle with the illness on their own. Only 15 percent of women suffering from postpartum depression—or up to 800,000—receive professional care, according to Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit focused on maternal mental health.

Today, advocates gathered in Washington, DC, for a lobby day and briefing to address this significant gap in treatment and the need for better education about postpartum depression. The event, hosted by the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health, was in support of Congresswoman Katherine Clark's Bringing Postpartum Depression Out of the Shadows Act of 2015.

"This is supposed to be a joyous time in a mom's life," Clark said. "It's such a tragedy that only such a small fraction of women affected seek treatment."

Clark's legislation would amend the Public Health Service Act to create federal grants for states to fund screening and treatment for postpartum depression and other maternal mental illnesses. The bill specifically asks for the federal government to provide $5 million annually for four years to support states as they develop progressive solutions to tackle and treat an often-stigmatized illness.

Read more: When New Moms Die from Mental Health Issues, We Are 'Failing as a Society'

The House bill has 54 co-sponsors, with the three latest supporters signing on last week. The Senate version of Clark's bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, has 12 co-sponsors. Both are bipartisan efforts.

The bill is currently in committee. Clark said she plans to reintroduce her legislation if it doesn't move through the House.


"We want women who are suffering from postpartum depression to know that there is treatment out there," said Clark.

But Clark notes that improving access to postpartum depression care is not only about mothers—it's about babies, too.

Studies have shown that undiagnosed and untreated maternal depression can harm a child's cognitive and emotional development. Researchers behind a 2010 Infant Behavior and Development paper reviewed ten years' worth of data on the effects of postpartum depression and found that the illness jeopardizes several caregiving activities, including feeding routines and safety practices. A 2004 Canadian study published in Paediatrics and Child Health discovered that children of depressed parents may develop insecure attachment, poor self-control, anxiety, impaired social skills, and learning difficulties, among other issues.

"It's preventable if more moms get help," said Joy Burkhard, founder of the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health, a California-based group focusing on pregnancy and postpartum depression. "Children can avoid a lifetime of challenges."

Burkhard said America's fragmented health care system is partly to blame for the gaps in detection and treatment. Physical health and mental health are treated in two different systems, she said, which stymies communication and collaboration. This leaves many primary care physicians who are willing to screen for postpartum depression stumped on where to refer patients for help. And, Burkhard continued, not only does the health care system suffer from a shortage of therapists—particularly reproductive psychiatrists—it's not set up to train already overworked and overburdened doctors on how to screen for the illness in the first place.

"Women are falling through the cracks and not getting treatment, even when they're crying out for help," said Burkhard, who also serves as board executive director and chair of the 2020 Mom Project, a national maternal mental health non-profit. "It's the fault of our medical system for not catching the problem."

Burkhard and Clark both hope that the lobby day and briefing in Washington, DC, will drum up more support for the bill, as well as educate lawmakers on the illness and need for better care at the state and federal levels.

More importantly, as public awareness around postpartum depression grows—and more people like Panettiere speak out against stigma—they want to let women affected by postpartum depression to know it's OK to talk about their illness.

"[We] want to help women come out of the shadows," said Clark.