Tragedy shines a light on postpartum depression

When the tragic story of Lisa Gibson broke, it was a horrific reminder of the extremes of postpartum depression.

I remember giving birth to my first child in England in 1967. Like almost every new mother, I was unsure, anxious, happy but at the same time filled with self-doubt as to whether I was doing all the right things. You want to be the perfect mom, right? But somewhere in the chaos of that first week or two, reality crashes in.

Round the clock feedings led to being sleep deprived and the constant tiredness only added to the overwhelming emotions that come with a newborn. They were bundled into the baggage called the baby blues. Get over it, young moms were told which, translated, meant quit complaining. And with that old-school, slight-of-hand dismissal, the stigma of baby blues and the more complex postpartum depression were left to drift unchecked through the years and the decades.

So when the tragic story of Lisa Gibson broke, it was a horrific reminder of the extremes of postpartum depression. Gibson’s body was recovered from the Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba just over a week ago. She disappeared after her two children, two-year-old Anna and three-month-old Nicholas, were found unresponsive in the family home and died in hospital.

According to media reports, Gibson had sought help for postpartum depression and that condition is still part of the police investigation.

The baby blues, postpartum depression and the very rare condition of postpartum psychosis are complex conditions that may start shortly after the birth of the baby. PPD can also be experienced after a miscarriage, a stillbirth or the adoption of a baby. And the condition is more common than realized.

According to the Pacific Post Partum Support Society, one in six women experiences troubling depression or anxiety which becomes stressful for the whole family. That’s a lot of new moms. And just for the record, PPD can affect new dads too.

The condition is often characterized by despondency, emotional instability, anger, guilt, tearfulness, worrying, anxious thoughts or images, feelings of inadequacy or the inability to cope. But what causes these debilitating moods and emotions is unclear.

Profoundly changing hormones during and after pregnancy are often sited but unaffected women experience the same shifting hormones and dads suffering PPD obviously don’t have any hormone swings at all.

There are many contributing factors that could lead to PPD but a few might include formula feeding rather than breast feeding (which aids bonding and a healthy connection with the baby), pre-existing stresses, marital problems or poor relationships which can trigger a sense of isolation, and a history of depression. Then there is a reluctance to talk about feelings for fear of being judged a poor or inadequate mother.

Postpartum psychosis is a separate mental condition which is far more serious and quite rare. A new mother may suffer confusion, disturbing self-harming thoughts, delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech. Treatment is essential as the condition won’t go away without medical intervention and continuous close support.

PPD is still one of those elusive conditions that stubbornly carries a stigma to it although, luckily, it is fading. Addressing PPD involves recognizing the symptoms as early as possible, getting medical advice, enlisting a hands-on partner/family/friends support network, adequate diet, consistent sleep patterns (which is where the support network comes in) and close monitoring. Almost all moms get over the condition within a relatively short time as routines and coping strategies get established. In addition, the Pacific Post Partum Society (www.postpartum.org) offers help and support just a phone call away (toll-free 855-255-7999).

There really is an ah-ha moment when moms realize they can cope. Tragically, it didn’t happen for Lisa Gibson but in her memory is an opportunity for compassionate understanding for all mothers and their babies.