Friday, August 14, 2009

We can prevent tragedies from postpartum illness - Update

From the Houston Chronicle:

Every new mother is expected to feel joyous at the birth of a new child. After all, the creation of life is supposed to be the height of a mother's life experience. But if you're a mother living with postpartum mental illness, that's not always the case.

The recent reports of Otty Sanchez, the San Antonio mother diagnosed with postpartum psychosis prior to killing her baby, are troubling and tragic. Concern about this situation resonates with people in communities throughout our area because of Andrea Yates and her children, who experienced a similar tragedy.

Although the cases of Andrea Yates and Otty Sanchez are both extreme instances of postpartum psychosis, a serious mental illness that only occurs in about one in 1,000 mothers, the illness has once again become a topic of discussion, as well as a source of misunderstanding, in Houston, the U.S. and around the world.

Watching in shock and disbelief as the details of this recent tragedy unfold makes us all wonder how could this happen? Perhaps more importantly, we can ask ourselves, what can we do as individuals and as a community to prevent such tragedies?

Through years of research, we have been able to identify the risk factors associated with postpartum mental illnesses along with their most recognizable symptoms. Early identification of postpartum illnesses can lead to early treatment. In most cases, with treatment, mothers are able to fully recover. Postpartum mental illnesses are identifiable, treatable and in most cases, preventable. With education, we can all learn to identify the symptoms of postpartum mental illnesses, guide mothers to treatment and recovery and simultaneously protect their children.

Postpartum psychosis should not be confused with the much more common postpartum depression. Some of the symptoms of postpartum depression include: sadness and crying, problems sleeping, not wanting to hold or touch the baby (not enjoying the baby), feeling extremely tired or having changes in eating patterns.

On the other hand, some general symptoms of postpartum psychosis include: hearing voices, seeing things, shutting down or withdrawing from others, confused or disorganized thoughts and having thoughts about hurting herself or her baby.

While both postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis require the care and treatment of a mental health or health care professional, postpartum psychosis should be treated as an emergency and a medical professional should be contacted immediately. A mother diagnosed with postpartum psychosis usually requires hospitalization until she is in stable condition. Hospitalization is required to protect the mother and child. A mother who has postpartum psychosis should never be left alone with her child.

When a mother has postpartum psychosis, it is important that people take the signs seriously and understand that help means connecting with a health care professional quickly.

Building awareness and education about postpartum mental illnesses are steps that we have already begun in our community. Since the Yates case, Houston has created ways to reach out to mothers, families and health care professionals about postpartum mental illnesses.

With the foresight of Yates' attorney, George Parnham, Mental Health America of Greater Houston created the Yates Children Memorial Fund in 2002 to support educational efforts for health care professionals and the public about postpartum mental illnesses. Mental Health America of Greater Houston continues its work today by increasing awareness about postpartum mental illnesses and creating educational materials such as brochures and posters that are distributed to hospitals, clinics, social service agencies and others who come in contact with mothers. Free trainings on postpartum mental illnesses for health care professionals are also provided by local experts.

Screening for postpartum depression is another area of prevention where we focus our attention. As an organization we also advocate for postpartum depression screenings at health care visits. Health care professionals can quickly and easily screen mothers for postpartum depression at well-woman and well-child visits. Screening is an affordable, efficient and effective means of identifying mothers who may be suffering from postpartum depression. Legislative support for screening, education and treatment for postpartum mental illnesses is also crucial to community efforts.

No one wants to see a baby or a small child die at the hands of his/her own mother. Rather than denying the reality of postpartum mental illnesses, we must work together to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.

Schwartz is president and CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the area's oldest mental health education and advocacy organization.

update: Baby Blues Explained to Moms

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