Beyond the Birth
My son’s birth and first newborn days should have been some of the happiest of my life, but my mind had other plans. It was a long labor and delivery in March 2006, starting with an inducement, progressing through 24-30 sleepless hours of labor and concluding with a 1:30 a.m. C-section. Then my blood pressure went up, and I started to panic. I could not sleep, even when nurses gave me Ambien. I kept thinking I was experiencing a serious medical condition — dizziness, heart palpitations — and the blood pressure medication was causing side effects.
None of the healthcare providers considered a panic attack, which I’m now certain I experienced. Everyone seemed more focused on getting my son to breastfeed and wondering why I still couldn’t void without a catheter. When I finally could urinate and my blood tests were normal, I was discharged with my son. The panic symptoms continued. I was sleepless, but not just because of my newborn son’s demands — I was afraid to fall asleep because I thought I wouldn’t wake up. When I saw my doctor for a blood pressure check 2 days later, she finally admitted my problem might be anxiety and/or depression and prescribed Xanax, which helped immediately. My primary care provider later prescribed Prozac. Over time, my mood stabilized, but I still take an antidepressant.
Studies have shown untreated perinatal mental illness can result in poor infant development, increased injuries to the infant and higher rates of colic, noted Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, director of the perinatal psychiatry program of the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders in Chapel Hill, NC. The bond between mother and child also suffers. In severe cases of postpartum psychosis, mother’s have a 5 percent suicide risk and a 4 percent risk of infanticide.
UNC HealthCare believes connecting mental health services with perinatal services would reach more women at risk for postpartum depression and related mental illness. As a result, it created an inpatient perinatal psychiatry program. Housed within the North Carolina Women’s Hospital, the program has an inpatient and outpatient component.
The Perinatal Mood Disorders Inpatient Unit consists of four private and two semi-private beds on a 15-bed, locked unit shared with geriatric psychiatry patients, which postpartum patients prefer because of its “calm and quiet” atmosphere. Mothers can spend extended supervised time with their newborns; rooms are furnished with glider rockers, and the unit has lactation consulting, breast pumps and milk storage. After discharge, women can receive follow-up care through two clinics. In addition to comprehensive assessment and treatment, including medication stabilization, postpartum patients receive specialized group and individual therapy. Spouses also can receive counseling and other support.
Fortunately, my anxiety and depression were minor and responded to medication and plenty of love and support from my family; however other women aren’t so lucky. If more programs such as those at UNC were available, new moms at risk could get the help they — and their babies — desperately need.