When Britney Asbell was first diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety after the birth of her second child, she felt isolated and misunderstood. Asbell couldn’t find a single therapist or psychiatrist near her home in Kathleen who specialized in maternal mental health.
Her story is not unique.
Between 15% and 20% of mothers experience symptoms of depression or anxiety after childbirth, according to Postpartum Support International. Half of them don’t seek treatment, the National Perinatal Association reported in 2018.
In a state with one of the highest maternal death rates in the country, Georgia activists, politicians and health professionals are working together to send a message to mothers that their health matters.
May 1 marked Georgia’s first-annual Maternal Mental Health Day, thanks to a bill passed by the state legislature in March. Georgia lawmakers also benchmarked $1 million in the fiscal year 2020 budget to screen and treat maternal mental illness in rural and underserved regions of the state.
Soon, dozens of Middle Georgia clinicians also will be equipped to care for mothers struggling with mental illness before or after birth. On May 16, 17 and 18, Postpartum Support International will teach nurses, doctors, mental health providers and childbirth professionals how to detect and treat perinatal mood disorders.
“We still have a hill to climb,” said Elizabeth O’Brien, a therapist and president of Postpartum Support Internationals’ Georgia chapter. “The good news is, there are some really dedicated people in our state who want to do something different.”
Building a pipeline of providers in central Georgia
Middle Georgia moms struggling with postpartum mental illness often call O’Brien at her office in Atlanta, seeking support nearby. For years, she hasn’t been able to offer much help.
Women outside of Georgia’s largest cities can travel for care or talk to a remote therapist on the phone, but even in a mid-sized city like Macon, in-person maternal mental health resources are virtually non-existent. O’Brien hopes the training will build a community of providers deeply versed in the nuances of maternal mental health.
“The idea is that by getting local clinicians trained in this area, we could start to have more robust services — assessment and treatment — available to women that are struggling with postpartum mood disorders,” said Jennifer Barkin, associate professor of community medicine and obstetrics and gynecology at Mercer University School of Medicine.
Barkin, who studies maternal mental health, also regularly receives calls from mothers in need. She plans to attend the training, both for her own research purposes, but also so she knows what to tell moms who reach out for help.
It’s important for women to have access to medical professionals who specialize in the perinatal period, before and after childbirth, said Andrea Meyer, a therapist and associate professor at Mercer’s medical school, who is also registered for the training.
“In the same way I wouldn’t want to go to a foot doctor to get treatment for a heart problem, you know, I would want to make sure that the person that I’m going to understands what the unique challenges are for myself and the struggles I’m having,” she said.
Meyer said many mothers want a provider who can take into account all of the changes — both physiological and situational — that accompany pregnancy and childbirth, like sleep loss, lack of social support and the pressure to return to work. It can be difficult for mothers to seek help, she said, especially if they know it will be hard to find.
Meyer will be able to share what she learns at the training not only with her clients at the Mercer Family Therapy Center, but also with the students she trains at the medical school. She thinks the event will have a ripple effect throughout central Georgia.
“By having this training and increasing the number of providers in our area,” she said, “we can encourage women — and their spouses and their partners — to come and ask questions and seek help before some of the issues they’re having become debilitating or distressing.”
Mothers often suffer in silence, Barkin said, because they assume what they’re feeling is normal. Their doctors ask if the baby is gaining weight or if their caesarean section scar has healed, but they don’t bother to screen for anxiety or depression, she said.
“All the clinical outcomes get attention, but the mom’s mental health does not consistently get attention,” Barkin said. “So that sends a message to the mother that this is really no big deal, when, in fact, it is.”
Shedding light on maternal mental health
Britney Asbell is grateful that more maternal mental health resources are coming to middle Georgia. She hopes that soon all mothers will be screened for postpartum mental illness, and that those who need help can find it.
It was disheartening to open up to therapists who didn’t understand that her anxiety and the birth of her baby were interconnected, Asbell said.
Asbell gave birth to her third child five months ago, and this time, she had a team in place to support her through the ups and downs. Some days were harder than others, Asbell said. But even in her worst moments, she knew she could count on her therapist, friends and family to recognize warning signs and reach out when she started to withdraw.
Climbs throughout the state raised over $20,000 last year, O’Brien said. That money goes toward scholarships for trainings like the one happening in Macon later this month.
The event also opens up the conversation about a topic that isn’t talked about enough, Asbell said. Until someone else has the courage to share their story, she said, many mothers feel too ashamed to share their experiences.
Like with any reform movement, O’Brien said, the first stage is building awareness.
“The more we talk about the perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, the more we can break down the stigma,” Asbell said.
When women feel more comfortable letting others know that they’re struggling, she said, “the faster they can get help, the faster they can get better.”
If you’d like to attend the training, you can register at http://bit.ly/2vtnh3w. Registration closes May 8.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.