“Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth”, Part Three, Interview with Walker Karraa
By Cynthia Good Mojab, MS, LMHCA, IBCLC, RLC, CATSM
Last week, Cynthia Good Mojab provided Science & Sensibility readers with the first two parts of her three-part series on the book “Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth” by Dr. Walker Karraa. Today on the blog, Cynthia shares her recent interview with Karraa. Dr. Karraa provides additional insights on her research and discusses her thoughts on how the book has been received and can be beneficial to professionals and families alike. I recommend that you go back and read Part One and Part Two as well as today’s interview. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.
Cynthia Good Mojab: First, Walker, let me start with congratulations! I found your book to be a page-turner. I think what you’ve uncovered is very important. I’m so grateful that your book is now a resource for perinatal care providers, lay supporters, and new parents. Have you gotten reader feedback yet?
Walker Karraa: I have gotten feedback. The feedback I’ve gotten has been very much like what you’ve just shared. People have said that it reads very quickly. I like that feedback because it says that it reads for clinicians and for lay people. It reads from the stories. I didn’t want to take out the literature review—I believe that it’s important for individuals and families that experience perinatal mood and anxiety disorders to have access to that information. I struggled with how to put context in and not have it be heavy. So, I’m glad to hear this. I did have one reader tell me that it was hard to read emotionally because the stories hit home. I think that it is a hard read. It certainly was hard to research. I didn’t see that coming. It was hard to hear the stories and be touched in my own experience of postpartum depression. I was so surprised by the stark, universal level of suicidal ideation. That was one of the most surprising things.
CGM: I think that the structure of the book, the writing style, and how statistics have been combined with real life experiences are very effective. That it’s a painful read is actually helpful because we need many more people to grasp postpartum depression at a deeper level so we can change whether we screen, how we screen, and what kind of services, support, and treatment we’re providing.
WK: I think that is what is different about my work—both in the approach I took to the research question and how I went in asking. I got answers that are that deep and that reveal a picture of postpartum depression experienced as trauma. And, that’s why it’s a hard read. I will always be thankful on a deep, profound, personal level to the twenty women who sat with me in those initial interviews and the women, another ten after, who shared the most difficult parts of their lives. So, I’m so thankful that they had that courage because it revealed that there’s more to the paradigm of postpartum depression than, how we think of it right now anyway, a form of depression with a pervasive sadness.
And, you know we all have social constructs of depression as lack of energy, sadness, incredible fatigue, sleeping too much, these kinds of general symptoms. There’s no diagnosis for postpartum depression [in the DSM-5]. It’s an onset specifier for major depression. So, we all look at these symptoms as depression. And, what the women in the study showed us is that their symptoms go beyond the symptoms of major depression. And that there’s something that happens within the context of having a major depressive episode and a new baby that is shattering to all that women have known prior to that to be things that they could count on in the world—all of those preconceived assumptions about what was predictable in the world were completely decimated. So, that collision and deconstruction of the self that they all shared is a trauma to witness, and they see it themselves; they watched themselves almost from a dissociative place. So, I do think and I hope that it offers the opportunity for everybody to have a larger conversation about how the effect of a mood disorder after the birth of a child can be traumatic.
CGM: Another thing that really struck me in your book, Walker, was how unprepared the women were when they experienced the onset of symptoms of postpartum depression. Tell me more about that.
WK: Even the women who had a history of mental health challenges were completely unprepared for the physical and psychological symptoms of postpartum depression. Their providers had not prepared them and their social world had not prepared them. So, when those symptoms hit, they had no context for being able to articulate to anyone what was happening. As a result, the “During” aspect of experiencing postpartum depression was unbelievable invisibility as the symptoms got worse and worse and worse because they had been so unprepared. Because perinatal care providers were not offering the feedback—I see you and you are feeling this way—the situation reached critical mass for all of them. And, what was so interesting to me is that every single participant was responsible for her own recovery. She alone found her way to help. They had all been asking for help….They weren’t shy—which was different than what we see in the literature. What we see in the literature is that stigma keeps women from talking. But, these women were saying “Hi, I want to die and you don’t see me.” Often a provider would say something like, “You’re telling me you want to die. Why don’t you try putting your iPod on when your baby cries.” And, what was it that made them decide to stay? I would say it was the love of their baby. And, that, no one has looked at in the research. All these women had a plan when they were nearest death. They all had suicidal ideation. They all had thoughts of harming themselves or others. They all were at that quintessential existential end of the rope when they then reached out to someone that they hadn’t yet reached out to, all on their own. And, they didn’t want to die. They wanted the symptoms to end. That is very important. And for some, treatment meant going to hospital. For some it meant getting medication. For some it meant both.
CGM: My clients also tell me that very few providers are screening them for perinatal mental health challenges or even asking a casual “How are you doing with this?” Or they tell me how they start trying to tell care providers how they feel and they will get the same kind of discounting response like what you’re describing. We have other research that shows how undetected perinatal mental health challenges are. It’s just so clear that we are collectively failing.
WK: I have a tremendous amount of respect for providers. I don’t think it’s their fault. I think that there is such stigma around mental illness—and in particular around mental illness in new mothers—that we’re blind. We are not receiving training to look at our own biases—to see that the elephant in the room is the belief that new mothers with mental illness are going to harm their babies. And we have Greek mythology and modern media to help support that belief. So, yes, it’s the primary responsibility of a care provider and that’s why women go to care providers because that’s who you go to when you say that you’re sick and you need help. But, the care providers themselves, including OBs, general doctors, ER doctors, psychiatrists, the whole realm of childbirth professionals…they haven’t been given the opportunity or the mandate to look at their own internalized and institutionalized stigma.
CGM: Like you said earlier, the stigma taps into our own fears. We’re afraid. It tugs on our own internal memories and experiences of when we’ve been vulnerable or someone significant in our life has been vulnerable.
WK: Yes. We are afraid. But women have been doing this for millennia. Most women get through it. And, this is what we need to help women know. The women in my book are just a tiny little window into the millions of women throughout the ages who have the fortitude, the skill, the strength, to be dragged through hell and survive. And not only survive, but be transformed. It’s beyond recovery. This is the trauma literature. This is the incredible literature from Tedeschi and Calhoun regarding posttraumatic growth that needs to be brought into the birth world. And, Viktor Frankl—the famous Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor…. He endured that process. Every human being does that and women will do that. So we’re talking about what obstacles and paradigms are set against women. What I learned in the book is that women are more resourceful because of their attachment to their children—because of their unbelievable strength of love for their infant—than we know. I would even go so far as to say that, if I had a huge funding source, I would do a study on my hypothesis that women who have perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are more attached. We’re not less attached. We may have periods where we are less attached, but staying present while experiencing that makes us more connected.
CGM: Look at the love that it takes to feel so bad inside and still go and do these attachment building behaviors over and over and over again. The attachment is still being built even if parents can’t see it. And, the other thing I really appreciate about your work is that it’s such a refreshing focus on growth. Attending to growth is very effective and links well with cognitive behavioral therapy and solution-focused brief therapy. And, it makes me wonder, instead of what are all the risk factors, can we do some research on resiliency factors and on growth factors? What is it that helps parents grow through this and how can we nurture that?
WK: I hope more clinicians will read the book and think about these things. You know Tedeschi and Calhoun have a wonderful model for clinical intervention that’s growth based. And it’s only been used in situations that have already been identified as traumatic. But they have a really strong model for how to work with people who experience trauma, clinically, to develop more growth. And, I’m not a clinician. If I were, I would be interested in doing that kind of work. They were kind enough to let me use their scale. I found off the chart suicidal ideation. So, I asked them if I could use their posttraumatic growth inventory with the original sample and they obliged. And my wonderful original 20 women all took it. And they scored off the charts for growth. So then I interviewed somebody who is an expert in posttraumatic growth. And I also sent my result to Richard Tedeschi. I wanted some feedback: is this growth? And, they both said, well, it’s a small sample—it’s only 20—but yes. And, furthermore, they said that the level that I was getting off those scales is much higher than in other populations that they had looked at, such as people who had been through terrorist attacks or rape or surviving cancer. So, again, if I had money for research, applying that posttraumatic growth inventory to women who had been through a perinatal mood disorder would be really valuable on a larger scale.
CGM: I know it’s a small qualitative study, but what is your sense of how generalizable your findings might be?
WK: You know, generalizability in qualitative research is not necessarily a concern. Grounded theory would say that the generalizability of the findings has to do with if you’ve sampled well. And, theoretical sampling is about getting a condensed understanding. It’s like essential oil—you want the essence of it. I tell my doctoral students, who are just learning about the difference between qualitative and quantitative research, that quantitative research is like a fisherman casting a really wide net—huge—and you gather as much data in that net as far as you can go. And, that gives you information about the nature of the farthest reach of the ocean. Qualitative research goes straight down, plumbs straight down into the ocean—you know, a core area where the essence of that part of the ocean is. And, then you can take that and ask the same questions in other parts of the ocean. And, that would be the next part of the research.
CGM: Exactly. I know the whole purpose of your study was not to answer the question how generalizable transformation is but to explore the phenomenon of transformation. Your study design allowed you to do that. The question I have is: who do you think the women in your study are? Do you think they had characteristics that make them different than the big broad ocean? What did you notice about their membership in different social groups even though that was not the focus of your study?
WK: I have a couple of responses to that. First, it would be definitely an indication of the need for future research. In the demographics that I got, I would say that it was pretty diverse regarding race. And, socioeconomic status was all over the place. It was very diverse in terms of educational status. I had women with professional degrees and women with a high school education. But they were all English speakers. And when I say racially diverse, I will say that they identified as “American.” So, I didn’t have folks who were immigrants and that’s definitely something that should be looked at. Regarding whether there is some different quality in women who transform through postpartum depression, again I look at the research done by Tedeschi and Calhoun. They’re looking at that very issue. Are there personality characteristics that lend themselves more toward being able to grow through a traumatic event? What they have found is that people who are more optimistic are slightly more likely to experience growth through trauma than those who are not. But, it’s not set in stone. In other words, the numbers aren’t so high that we can go out and say that if you’re an optimistic person you’re going to have this amazing growth. There are so many variables involved with the quality of the growth, the characteristics of the person, access to time, and the circumstances. I think that there are probably shades of growth—that anybody who has ever been through a clinical mood disorder following the birth of a child probably experiences some amount of growth. And, this is just me shooting from the hip. I think there’s something inherent in being a parent. All of the research about having a child in the NICU, losing a baby, losing a baby in pregnancy…these are all traumas. Anything that’s a life or death experience is a trauma. And every human being grows. That’s just my personal belief. It’s just the human experience that we have the ability to grow—because we need to make meaning about these horrible things that happen. And, that meaning usually comes from making choices to believe in our ability as a parent.
CGM: What is your number one take away? How do you think your findings can be applied by childbirth educators, doulas, midwives, and other perinatal care providers?
WK: I think that the take away is that it’s a call to action. At the very least 1 in 7 of your clients or your students is going to have this experience. What are you going to do about it? What kinds of information do you need to be able to help them? And then ask your organizations to give you that.
CGM: In my work as a clinician and an educator, I need tools and resources that I can point people to that I think are useful. So, I’m really excited about your book. I think it’s going to have a lot of ripple effect in terms of new research but also in supporting a shift in broadening our worldview of postpartum depression to include growth. So, I think your work is great. I’m so delighted that you did the research and you published it.
WK: Thank you so much for spending this time. It’s been a pleasure and a gift. I so appreciate it.
About Cynthia Good Mojab
Cynthia Good Mojab, MS Clinical Psychology, is a Clinical Counselor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, author, award-winning researcher, and internationally recognized speaker. She is the Director of LifeCircle Counseling and Consulting, LLC where she specializes in providing perinatal mental health care. Cynthia is Certified in Acute Traumatic Stress Management and is a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and the National Center for Crisis Management. Her areas of focus include perinatal loss, grief, depression, anxiety, and trauma; lactational psychology; cultural competence; and social justice. She has authored, contributed to, and provided editorial review of numerous publications. Cynthia can be reached through her website