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Moms battle the blues

By Tom Davis

Months before my mother died, a psychologist asked my father what started her "downhill slide."

He thought for two seconds and came up with an answer. "I think it was when Thomas was born, 30 years ago," he said.

Right then, I felt this sense of guilt and uneasiness. Me? Was it my fault? "No, it wasn't you," my father assured me. "But maybe it was the trigger."

I'd heard this kind of story before. A seemingly stable mother loves her children, loves her husband. But she becomes depressed, self-loathing and unhappy - usually right after childbirth.

My mother suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. But before I was born, I'm told, she was quite functional. Could postpartum depression have been what ultimately pushed her into a life of obsession and despair? We'll never know. But those who know something about the illness are frustrated that the public still hasn't grasped how destabilizing postpartum depression can be.

Many times, it strikes people with no history of mental illness. But experts say postpartum depression can help unwrap or magnify whatever underlying disorders were there already. If left untreated, it can lead many on a path of self-destruction and public humiliation.

Acting Governor Codey recently nearly came to blows with a radio talk-show shock-jock who ridiculed Codey's wife, Mary Jo, for revealing her long struggle with postpartum depression.

The radio station, New Jersey 101.5, has since offered its "full support" to the statewide mental health awareness campaigns. But the station initially resisted, accusing the media of spinning "a sensationalized one-sided story to the public." Its initial response was typical of those who don't accept the fact that many women experience post-pregnancy physiological changes that alter the way they think and act.

This is what Suzanne O'Malley has discovered. She wrote a book that researched the Texas case of Andrea Yates, whose illness may have caused her to drown her five small children.

O'Malley says that as many as 20 percent of women suffer from postpartum depression or psychosis - the latter a more serious form that caused Yates to "break with reality" and commit murder, O'Malley said.

"She in all likelihood had an underlying diagnosis, which is bipolar disorder," said O'Malley, a member of the Harvard Medical School Program in Psychiatry and the Law. "She was misdiagnosed and then mismedicated" before the deaths.

O'Malley has committed years of research to the Yates case, and she's one of the few who has had direct communication with her. Her reporting was instrumental in getting a Texas appeals court to recently throw out Yates's convictions in three of her five children's drownings. Yates remains in jail while prosecutors seek a rehearing.

What she's discovered is something that's been long suspected, and sometimes ridiculed: Postpartum depression and psychosis may be the product of hormonal and chemical changes that take place with pregnancy. Brain scans apparently have shown differences in a postpartum brain from other brains, O'Malley said.

Besides showing the obvious signs of postpartum psychosis, Yates also had a history. After the birth of her fourth child, Yates attempted suicide. Medication seemed to ease the illness, but she tumbled into despair again after the birth of her fifth child.

"One of the things Andrea Yates wrote to me is, 'Don't say [in her book] it's like a dream. Say it's like a nightmare," O'Malley said. "Those who have been depressed know what that feels like."

While many ridicule Yates for excuse-making, O'Malley credits Mary Jo Codey and others for putting their reputations on the line and bringing credibility to a subject that's difficult for many women and their families to reconcile.

"God bless her [Codey] for being honest about it. There are plenty of women who keep it to themselves," O'Malley said.

Unfortunately, my mother never felt compelled to talk about herself and her problems. So, in my family, we'll never know for sure.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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