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One of a Kind: An Interview with Dr. Meltzer-Brody about UNC’s Inpatient Mother Baby Psych Unit

As Postpartum Support International’s 2014 Annual Conference kicks off this weekend in Chapel Hill, NC, regular contributor Kathy Morelli shares her interview with Dr. Samantha Melzter-Brody as Kathy learns more about the only inpatient psychiatric Mother-Baby Unit in the USA.  Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders affect up to 1 in 7 mothers, and at times, inpatient help is what is needed to properly serve the mother and her family.  This unique five bed unit is offering this inpatient care to help mothers get treatment for their perinatal mental health illnesses.  Learn more about this groundbreaking clinic in Kathy’s interview with Dr, Meltzer-Brody. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.

© Dr. Meltzer-Brody

© Dr. Meltzer-Brody

Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody has developed a substantial career as a psychiatrist in the areas of Reproductive/Maternal Mental Health. She is an Associate Professor and Director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It’s a comprehensive clinical and research program that includes a five bed inpatient psychiatric Mother-Baby Unit, the first and only of its kind in the United States. UNC’s unit is based on the standard of care psychiatric Mother-Baby Units in Europe and Australia.

In addition, Dr. Meltzer-Brody is scheduled to be the Keynote Speaker on Saturday, June 21st at the Postpartum Support International (PSI) 2014 Conference hosted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Women’s Mood Disorders. At PSI, she’s speaking about the psychopharmacological treatment of perinatal mental illness.

As a mental health clinician, I admit it took me a while to feel comfortable with the idea that women who are pregnant or lactating who are in need of psycho-pharmaceuticals can do well on them. Now I know there’s a risk-benefit analysis that women should be empowered to employ. Many women in my practice are extremely opposed to taking any medications suggested for their mental health (even when not pregnant or not lactating), so this is a topic with many facets. Each woman is an individual and each woman should talk to her doctor about what’s best for her situation. I’m attending the PSI conference and looking forward to learning more.

Kathy Morelli: How did you become interested in your particular niche, Reproductive/Maternal Mental Health?

Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody: First of all, I want to say that I love being a part of the Reproductive Mental Health field.
There are many different roles in the area of Reproductive and Maternal Mental Health, not just one. There are many different types of people needed to work in this area and fill these many different roles. I love that we all can work together, helping each other.

When I began working at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, there was no formal women’s mental health program in place. Our women’s mental health outpatient clinic was created at a grassroots level, beginning in the clinics on Wednesday mornings. I was fortunate as UNC Chapel Hill functions with a wonderful collaborative and interdisciplinary atmosphere, so the psychiatry program and the obstetrics program were able to dovetail nicely. In addition, in 2006, our new chair of the psychiatric department arrived, Dr. David Rubinow, who is an international expert in women’s reproductive mood disorders, thus, the time was ripe to create our interdisciplinary Perinatal Outpatient Clinic.

KM: The Mother-Baby Unit at UNC Chapel Hill is the only Maternal-Baby Psychiatric Unit in the United States. I’d love to know more about how the idea came about to develop the Mother-Baby Unit at Chapel Hill. 

SM-B: At UNC, we found there was a high demand for reproductive psychiatry in our outpatient mental health clinics. We have clinic locations in a variety of settings and we found that there was a certain percentage of patients to whom we couldn’t deliver much needed proper care in the outpatient setting nor on a general inpatient psychiatry unit. The Mother-Baby Unit was developed to serve the needs of women experiencing severe perinatal mental illness in a safe and specialized setting to meet the needs of women at this vulnerable time.

As the collaborative team discovered and documented the needs of our patients, we were able to work together at UNC to engage hospital administration at higher levels. We were very fortunate to have a number of champions for this idea within the healthcare system. Initially, we piloted our inpatient program by designating two beds for perinatal patients on a geropsychiatry unit. We developed specialized programming for the perinatal patients and began to get an enormous number of referrals. Eventually, we were able to document that we needed an expanded and completely separate perinatal psychiatry inpatient unit and were able to obtain the support of hospital administration at UNC to launch a new program. And that’s how we became the only Mother-Baby inpatient unit in the United States.

At UNC, we feel it’s critical to have a unit to meet needs of mothers and babies. We feel you can’t mix all the different types of psychiatric populations together. We were able to remodel existing inpatient unit space to create the new unit on a relatively small budget. It’s extremely difficult for the family when a new mom becomes mentally ill and requires hospitalization. Our Mother-Baby Unit helps families through this difficult time by providing family care. It’s extremely rewarding to provide whole care that positively impacts the entire family. We are a state hospital committed to serving the population of the state. Indeed, there’s a state mandate to care for the people of the state, and we take that very seriously.

Keep in mind that our Mother-Baby Unit is a psychiatric care unit, not a respite or spa facility. To be admitted, the patient must meet the criteria for psychiatric inpatient hospitalization, such as suicidal ideation, a heightened bipolar episode or postpartum psychosis or inability to care for self. Most of our patients have suicidal ideation at the time of admission. The average length of stay (LOS) is seven days. Compare this average LOS in the US to the average LOS in a Mother-Baby Unit in Australia of 21 days. We also have a growing number of referrals for women presenting with postpartum psychosis.

When a mother and her baby comes to stay with us, it’s required that a family member, such as the grandmother or father or other identified care provider accompanies the baby on the unit. This is because the babies don’t stay overnight as the health insurance companies in the United States won’t pay for babies to stay overnight. But we work as best we can with the family, in order to preserve the mother’s sleep time for her mental health and also preserve the healthy attachment with her infant. Sleep is especially important when a person is suffering from a mental illness.

In the units, we have bassinets and breast pumps available for the patients and their babies. The nurses’ interaction with the babies vary based on the needs of the particular mother.

Our treatment plans focus on several psychosocial areas of concern. We focus on maternal mood, impaired mother-baby attachment issues, the relationship with the partner and on improving what the partner and family understands about what has happened. To serve these needs, we run several targeted groups: a maternal mental health group, a mother-infant attachment group and a partner group for fathers. But the treatment is individualized; it’s tailored to meet the needs of the family. Due to the typical short length of stay allowed by insurance companies in psychiatric units in the United States, the emphasis is on teaching self-help skills and tools to the patient and family. Such skills and tools are mindfulness, biofeedback, breathing, trigger identification, and post-discharge planning.

KM: There is so much stigma around the diagnosis of mental illness and perhaps more so around perinatal mental illness. Research shows that individuals suffer from both externalized and internalized stigma around a diagnosis of mental illness, much more so than a physical medical condition. So, there’s already stigma about depression and anxiety….it’s already difficult to come forward and then even more so for women to come forward about how they feel, as new mothers and with a baby. There’s shame associated with not coping and also fear about having the baby taken away.

Do you believe there is unconscious stigma around mental illness? Have you seen this phenomena in your work?

SM-B: Stigma is a huge and well documented issue in perinatal mood disorders. It’s very hard and terrifying for people to admit to having a mental illness, especially during the transition to motherhood. There are so many fears around hurting the baby. It’s documented that actual harm to the baby is quite rare, but when it happens, of course it’s a tragedy and the media sadly sensationalizes the event. Plus there is enormous personal shame. Research and clinical experience indicate this shame around feeling emotionally ill and then being diagnosed with a mental illness is exaggerated during the perinatal period. New mothers can feel so insecure and inadequate in their new roles. The stigma, shame and guilt issues are important and need to be part of the therapeutic sessions.

KM: There is so much contradictory information about how hormones, breastfeeding, formula feeding can affect a woman’s self-esteem and mood. Some studies suggest that breastfeeding is protective of depression, yet clinically, some women feel better when they choose to discontinue breastfeeding.

In layman terms, what are your thoughts about the relationship between breastfeeding and postpartum mood disorders? What are some of your guidelines for clinicians to follow regarding the choice of infant feeding method for a woman and her family?

SM-B: At the UNC Perinatal Psychiatry Program, we love to educate organizations that support new moms that women have psychiatric needs. We enjoy the opportunity to educate and influence breastfeeding groups with information about the unique needs of the perinatal population of women with mood disorders. Our feeling is that setting up breastfeeding as an all-or-nothing construct is a set up for feelings of failure for some new moms and can lead to exacerbation of psychiatric symptoms.
It would be great to see the prescription for sleep as a recognized treatment for new moms. And, for mothers with a perinatal mood disorder, to define successful breastfeeding to include one bottle nightly so that mom can sleep for an adequate block of time. This is important for the mom’s brain health.

We also want to emphasize that mothering is not a competitive sport. Our goal is a healthy mother and a healthy baby. Whether or not a woman breastfeeds shouldn’t be colored by judgment of right versus wrong or success versus failure. We need to keep in mind that the goal is that the baby must be fed, even when the mother is suffering from a severe perinatal mental illness.

One thing we do know is that sleep deprivation exacerbates depression anxiety and mood disorders. So we try to help women who wish to breastfeed increase the odds of successful lactation without significant sleep deprivation. We encourage women and families who wish to breastfeed to continue but also set up some guidelines to help the mothers heal mentally and emotionally. We don’t see breastfeeding as an all or nothing activity. At UNC, we say that there can be a combination of breastfeeding and formula feeding in order to support the needs of both mom and baby. We feel that breastfeeding has many benefits and that it’s not an all or nothing equation. We want to enable women with perinatal mood disorders to continue to breastfeed but also help them succeed at mothering, in a way that’s realistic and healthy for them.

KM: Dr. Meltzer-Brody, thank you so very much for your time! You’ve shared enlightened information and guidelines for perinatal clinicians and expanded the definition of mothering to be more inclusive. I look forward to seeing you at the conference at UNC!

What are the health care providers and clinics doing in your area to support the needs of women suffering from perinatal mental illness?  Do you think that your community would benefit from such an inpatient clinic?  How could this become a reality around the country, so all women are served as they should be, with the professional help and treatment they deserve?- SM

Babies, Depression, Guest Posts, Infant Attachment, Maternal Mental Health, Newborns, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression , , , , , ,

  1. June 22nd, 2014 at 15:41 | #1

    Hi Sharon! Thank you so very much for printing this information in Science & Sensibility! You are a peach! Love, Kathy

  2. June 22nd, 2014 at 18:14 | #2

    I’m happy to read about this. I serve families in Rhode Island and for years, the Women and Infant’s Day Hospital was the only model providing mother-baby care for mood disorders.

    Their program, under director Margaret Howard, is a day program in which moms come with their baby(ies) for daytime hours, they receive group and individual therapy, medication management and have their baby with them to nurse and snuggle. It’s a fantastic model and I had heard there was another facility doing something similar in NC so it’s great to read more about their program. Thanks, Kathy!

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