More needs to be done to raise awareness about the devastation of postpartum depression among the public and medical community and to make effective treatment widely available.
Public defender Kimberly Wong, who suffered severe postpartum depression, founded the Los Angeles County Perinatal Mental Health Task Force to raise awareness about the illness. (Christina House, For The Times / July 29, 2012)
Just like for so many others, including my wife, Kimberly Wong didn’t see the darkness coming, and nobody warned her that it could.
Here’s what happened. After years of trying, Wong got pregnant and at first everything went perfectly. The lead-up, the birth, the first week with the new baby, a cute little girl she and her husband named Marley.
Then out of nowhere this tough-minded public defender crumbled. Wong’s skin felt like it was being zapped by a cattle prod. Her resting heart rate was often 100. She could barely eat, sleep, slow down or think cogent thoughts.
Her doctor told her she was simply a high-strung lawyer who needed to relax. So she blamed herself, which made matters worse.
It didn’t help that the doctor’s advice made no sense. Wong had something relaxation can’t cure. She’d been hit by postpartum depression, brought on by, more than anything else, whipsaw hormonal changes that come with giving birth.
This isn’t something we can afford to keep sweeping into the shadows.
Experts say 10% to 20% of new mothers experience it: a steep drop in mood that’s far more devastating and lasts far longer than two or three weeks of the so-called baby blues.
Wong had the worst type. She penned a suicide note. By luck, her husband walked in on her. He took her to a Mid-City mental hospital so she wouldn’t harm herself. Nobody at the hospital had much expertise in what she was battling.
That’s when Wong realized how few options there are for women who need psychological help related specifically to motherhood. She had to drive 50 miles to find a doctor and a support group that really understood.
You should know that time has passed, about eight years since the height of it, and Wong and her family have bounced back. In fact, she has turned her struggles into something good.
“I’m trying to make sure other moms don’t go through what I did,” she says.
When she’s not working at the public defender’s office, she focuses on the nonprofit she started: the Los Angeles County Perinatal Mental Health Task Force. Sure, clunky name, but can there be a more important cause?
Experts say that in L.A. County alone, about 22,000 new mothers suffer from this awful malady every year.That’s 22,000 women — as well as their babies and partners — who need special support and too often aren’t getting it.
The task force — bare bones, operating largely on the energy of volunteers — aims to push us out of the shadows: moms and families who need help but are too embarrassed or just don’t know where to turn; doctors and social workers who are either ill-informed on the nuances of this illness or just don’t look hard enough for the warning signs.
Wong’s doctors didn’t really talk about the possibility she could grow terribly depressed after giving birth, she said. They should have.
She’d suffered childhood trauma: Her mother died when Wong was 11. There was a history of mental illness in her family, and she’d struggled to conceive. Those three facts put her at risk, but no doctors warned her, nobody came up with a plan that could have shielded her from near-fatal darkness.
“There’s just so much stigma that needs to be shattered,” Wong says. “I want people to talk about this like they talk about diabetes or having a bad heart. Not enough has changed since this happened and when it did happen I could barely get help.
“I’m a professional from West L.A. and it was hard enough for me,” she adds. “So think about women in poor communities with little access to good healthcare. Add it up and so many are suffering and the long-term effects for families can be devastating. Yeah, we need to talk.”
After the birth of our son in 2010, my wife battled postpartum depression. It wasn’t anywhere nearly as serious as what Wong went through and that’s important to know: This malady shows up in different strengths.
My wife’s was a more typical case. She wasn’t close to hurting herself or being put in a hospital. She did everything anyone could ask for our son. But for long, long months she lived in a world of sharp, shattering emotion that could have been avoided if we’d known more or had more aggressive help.
It could have broken my wife. What if she hadn’t had a partner to help? What if she had been poor? We’re insured, and even then it took a while for her doctors to understand how serious this was. But eventually she found a therapist who could talk her through the trouble.
Part of the problem is we live in a world swaddled in golden-hued mythology about parenthood. It’s supposed to be full of nothing but joy. If it isn’t, then moms are told to get more sleep and toughen up. That’s not helpful when depression sinks in its claws.
“A lot of us hide from this issue,” says Wong. “That has to change.”
She’s talking. So am I. So is my wife, who pushed me to write about her ordeal. If you care about mothers and children and families, well, you should be talking too.
Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times