Q. My daughter had her first child a month ago. She shows little interest in the baby, and even less in her husband. Is this post-partum? She had problems with depression when she was in high school and college, and I’m afraid they are returning. How can we help her?
A. It certainly sounds as if your daughter is experiencing post-partum depression. I cannot make a diagnosis without seeing her, but I suggest that she should schedule an appointment with her obstetrician immediately. It is likely that she will be placed on an antidepressant such as Prozac or Zoloft, and perhaps be referred to a psychotherapist.
Some people mistake post-partum depression for the “baby blues,” yet they are quite different. The “blues” is a transient, low-level depression lasting for approximately 10 days to two weeks. Conversely, post-partum is a sustained depressed mood in which women have difficulty feeling any positive emotions. Many women say, “I know I love my baby, but I feel nothing.” They also lose their ability to relate to significant others.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburg found that post-partum depression is a significant mental health concern. After questioning 10,000 women about their after birth experiences, they found that 14 percent or approximately 1 out of every 7 women met the diagnosis of post-partum depression. Major symptoms include a sustained inability to sleep, a general feeling of hopelessness that extends more than a few weeks after the baby’s birth, and even suicidal ideation. As one woman described it, “I felt suicidal, but I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to rest.” In a few extreme cases, women experience psychotic episodes in which they harm or even kill their children.
You can help your daughter by insisting that she speak with her physician about her emotional issues immediately. You can also help her care for the baby which will allow her to get much needed sleep. Other friends or relatives can be encouraged to help when you can’t be there.
Be certain that her husband understands her condition. He should go to the obstetrician with her, so that he can be informed about the seriousness of post-partum. At no time should anyone suggest that she is being self-centered. This is a hormonal condition that is beyond her control.
If she is willing to take medication and accept assistance from others, she should recover to full-functioning in a few months. If the depression continues after that time, she should be referred to a psychiatrist for further evaluation.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a private practice.