By Walker Karraa
Regular contributor Walker Karraa has written an excellent three part series on Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMAD) and what the childbirth educator or birth professional can do to help women get the help they may need when dealing with mental illness during the prenatal and postpartum period. Walker interviews experts in the field who all offer concrete steps, activities and resources so that educators and others can do to be more prepared to discuss this important subject with students and clients. Recent press coverage of a British mother suffering from severe PMAD has made headlines and the topic is one that belongs in whatever childbirth class a woman chooses to take. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager.
Safety regarding the use of a specific type of antidepressant medication, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI’s), is an important topic as maternal health care providers address the prevalence and negative effects of depression and other mood disorders in pregnancy and postpartum. Recently, the study The risks of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor use in infertile women: a review of the impact on fertility, pregnancy, neonatal health and beyond (Domar, Moragianni, Ryley & Urato, 2012) has garnered tremendous attention from media, researchers and childbirth professionals. I had the opportunity to ask the study’s authors and other experts about the dangers of discontinuation in a piece for Giving Birth With Confidence. From that article, we hear the overwhelming agreement; including two of the study’s authors, that sudden discontinuation of SSRI antidepressant medications in pregnancy is not advisable.
A week later, I learned about the tragic case of Felicia Boots, a 35 year old woman in the United Kingdom who, fearing she was harming her baby by taking SSRI’s and breastfeeding, suddenly stopped. Shortly after, she took the lives of her 14-month old and 10 week old children. A special editorial published by The Lancet (November 10, 2012), noted: “She had stopped her prescribed antidepressants because she was convinced that the drugs would harm her baby through her breastmilk and feared that her children would be taken away from her”(p. 1621). The authors went on to state: “A society in which women know that they will receive empathy, understanding, and help might be one in which women seek advice more readily, and accept appropriate treatments” (Lancet, 2012, p. 1621).
This is a vision shared by the guiding principles of maternity care–as childbirth professionals have always worked for a society where women know they will be cared for, understood, and have access to appropriate interventions. Unfortunately, we have failed to include mental health. How might the childbirth education community better address these issues? Asking experts is a place to start. What is uniquely helpful here is that the same questions were given to all participants—shedding light on one commonality: education.
Today’s article features Julia Frank, MD. Dr. Frank is a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, where she has been the Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry since 2000. A graduate of the Yale University School of Medicine and of the residency program in psychiatry at Yale, Dr. Frank is also the founder of `Five Trimesters Clinic, a service for women with mental health needs relating to pregnancy and childbirth. In this installment, Dr. Frank addresses how childbirth educators might address these complex issues.
WK: How might childbirth professionals integrate an understanding of postpartum psychosis (PP) and other perinatal mood disorders in classes?
Dr. Frank: It is important to stress that the condition is rare but serious and treatment is generally quickly successful. Women with a family history of bipolar disorder or of postpartum psychosis in relatives should be told that they are at somewhat increased risk. Giving information in writing to them and their partners about what to look out for (especially profound sleeplessness and confusion) in the first couple of weeks postpartum might also be helpful.
WK: The recent Lancet editorial regarding the Felicia Boots tragedy stated: “Postnatal depression and, more broadly, perinatal mental health disorders, are among the least discussed, and most stigmatizing, mental health illnesses today” (p. 1621).
How would you describe the stigma of perinatal mental health disorders and its impact?
Dr. Frank: I think the widespread publicity given to the sensational cases with terrible outcomes makes it hard for women to admit to any difficulty postpartum. The general public tends to conflate postpartum depression with psychosis. I have had women say to me “I don’t think I’m depressed, because I don’t want to hurt my baby”. We also overemphasize depression and neglect anxiety. I am not sure that is a factor of stigma, but it certainly contributes to under diagnosis.
Obstetricians and pediatricians may not recognize or discuss a postpartum psychiatric disorder for fear of offending the affected mother. Other aspects of stigma that apply to professionals are the belief that psychiatric disorders are overwhelmingly time consuming to address, that women who have them lack insight, that treatment is generally no better than passage of time.
WK: What do you see as the most significant barriers to treatment for women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMAD)?
Dr. Frank: In the US, the disconnection between mental health care and medical care, written into our insurance systems, is a major barrier. Also, the way pediatricians are trained to deal only with the child, and not to assume any responsibility for the health of the mother, keeps them from screening appropriately. Obstetricians also maintain an overly narrow focus on the woman’s organs, and they tend to have very little contact with mothers after delivery, nor do most of them see mental health as within their sphere of interest or expertise. Fears of liability from the effects on the fetus of treating the mother are another barrier, especially in the US, where medical injury to an infant can bring astronomically high damage awards. This is a particular barrier to some psychiatrists being willing to initiate or maintain treatment related to pregnancy.
WK: How would you respond to media-based concerns regarding the safety of SSRI medication in pregnancy?
Dr. Frank: There is no pregnancy without risk, and the risks of not treating a serious psychiatric disorder are as important to consider as the risks associated with treatment. When we bypass maternal suffering out of concern for the safety of a fetus, we are making a misguided moral judgment that privileges “innocent” life over life as lived. The risks of these drugs are important and should be weighed carefully, but it has taken literally decades and the review of the experience of tens of thousands of women to identify the risks. Absolute and percentage risks remain acceptable, when weighed against the known benefits of taking medication when necessary. Over fifty percent of pregnant women take something during pregnancy, and treating a mood disorder is as important as treating a UTI, or diabetes, or heartburn or any of the conditions that are typically addressed.
WK: What are your thoughts regarding discontinuation of medication in pregnancy?
Dr. Frank: Depends on the medication, the woman’s history, and the illness being treated. Certainly, discontinuing a medication should not be an automatic response to a woman becoming pregnant.
WK: What suggestions do you have regarding how childbirth organizations can encompass perinatal mental health into training curriculum and practice?
Dr. Frank: Widespread education in the use of efficient screening methods, particularly the PHQ 9 or the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale would be a first step. Educators also need to develop routines for referring women to mental health services—the postpartum depression self-help community , embodied in organizations like Postpartum Support International, is pretty well organized and can help bridge the gap between screening and referral . Ideally, these organizations could reach out to women postpartum, rather than waiting for them to come in. Routine phone calls two and four weeks after delivery, providing encouragement for everyone while also identifying and facilitating referrals for women in difficulty, might be quite effective in both preventing and intervening in postpartum mood problems. This is an area that merits systematic study. Finally, organizations that include mothers themselves might consider urging women who have been identified and treated to write thank you notes to the health care providers who contributed to them getting help. I think this would counter the fears that providers have about giving and offense and doing harm.
Dr. Frank contributes to the broadening conversation regarding how childbirth educators might better address perinatal mental health. How do her suggestions resonate with your practice? In what ways could you use her information? Will you consider adding this information to your classes and new mother contact? And how could your certifying or professional organization become a source of support and education?
The second post in this series, scheduled for Thursday, features Nancy Byatt, D.O., MBA–Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics & Gynecology; Psychiatrist, Psychosomatic Medicine and Women’s Mental Health UMass Medical School/UMass Memorial Medical Center.
Domar, A. D., Moragianni, V. A., Ryley, D.A., & Urato, A.C. (2012). The risks of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor use in infertile women: a review of the impact on fertility, pregnancy, neonatal health and beyond. Human Reproduction, Vol.0(0) pp. 1–12 doi:10.1093/humrep/des383
Bringing postnatal depression out of the shadows The Lancet – 10 November 2012 (Vol. 380, Issue 9854, Page 1621 ) doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61929-1
Department of Health and Human Services: Depression During and After Pregnancy: A Resource for Women, Their Families, & Friends
The Organization of Teratology Information Services (OTIS), (866) 626-6847