Last week, a young mother was lost in Washington DC. While driving her car erratically near the White House and U.S. Capitol, Miriam Carey allegedly ignored commands from police and put their lives in jeopardy, ultimately leading to Carey being shot and killed.
Whenever a mother causes harm, people automatically assume postpartum depression was the reason. That has been the case with the tragic Carey incident as well, despite the fact that women with PPD do not harm their children and are not a danger to society. It's more likely that Carey was suffering from postpartum psychosis, a rare but very serious illness that can lead people to behave in ways they never would otherwise.
No matter what illness Carey suffered, however, it's important to recognize that any woman is susceptible to postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety or postpartum psychosis. These are real brain illnesses that require treatment by healthcare professionals. Currently only 15% of the 1 in 7 mothers who get these disorders ever get the treatment they need. This is a serious problem for society as a whole, because research shows the children of mothers who have untreated PPD have a higher likelihood of problems in school, behavior issues and future psychiatric illness themselves.
I am saddened by the numerous barriers that keep women from getting effective medical help. For some, it's lack of awareness. They just don't recognize what is wrong with them, or the damage it can do to their children if they don't get treated. For others it's lack of mental health insurance coverage, or lack of childcare or transportation that might allow a mom to attend a PPD support group, or lack of money to pay for medications or therapy sessions. For still others, it's stigma. It is hard for society to accept that a new mother would be anything less than gloriously happy about the gift of a new child. Struggling new moms are afraid they will be ostracized, or perhaps even lose their children, if they tell someone the truth about how they are suffering.
I know from my own experience with the birth of my firstborn how real postpartum depression is. It didn't matter that he was planned. It didn't matter that my husband and I had a solid 8-year marriage before we made the choice to have children. It didn't matter that we were financially stable. It didn't matter that my pregnancy was healthy and uneventful, or that I have a strong Christian faith. I still got sick. Very sick. I feel lucky that I was able to reach out for help and recover by the time my son was celebrating his first birthday.
It's because of my story and that of the half a million other mothers who struggle with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders each and every year in the U.S. that I started a nonprofit, Postpartum Progress, to start eliminating barriers and raising the kind of awareness that is needed to get moms to reach out for help. We need to do more. It is a mistake to think in this day and age that everyone understands postpartum depression and psychosis and is able to get the assistance they truly need. I only wish we could have done more for Miriam Carey, and her now motherless baby girl.