Postpartum Depression and Suicide in New Mothers

Although being a new mother can be a wonderful experience, it can also be mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. In some cases, the stresses associated with motherhood, and other factors, can cause a woman to experience what is known as postpartum depression (PPD). Also called postnatal depression, this is a serious mental health condition that can lead a mother to attempt or complete suicide. Consequently, it’s important that mothers and those around them understand what PPD is, and if they observe signs of it, seek help, including suicide prevention assistance if necessary.

Causes of Postpartum Depression

There is no one cause of PPD. Experts believe it results from a combination of physical and emotional factors. New mothers tend to experience a number of physical challenges ranging from pain and discomfort produced by the birthing process to dealing with intense sleep deprivation. The result tends to be exhaustion, which can be a contributor to PPD. Hormones are believed to play a role in the condition as well. Following childbirth, a woman’s estrogen and progesterone levels drop rapidly. This results in chemical changes in the brain that can produce mood swings.

While PPD is not fully understood, there are identified risk factors, including:

  • Symptoms of depression in the past, whether associated with childbirth or not
  • Depression or mental illness in other family members
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Troubling life events during pregnancy or soon after giving birth (e.g., domestic violence, personal illness, death of a loved one, relocation, job loss)
  • Difficult or premature delivery
  • Health problems with the baby
  • Lack of assistance and/or emotional support in caring for the baby
  • Uncertainty about being a parent (whether the pregnancy was planned or not)
  • But, one thing is clear: PPD does not result from anything a woman does or fails to do.

Postpartum Depression Symptoms

Postpartum depression should not be confused with the “baby blues,” which affect up to 80 percent of new mothers and leave them feeling tired and sad. Baby blues involve mild symptoms and resolve in a week or two. PPD is a serious mental illness that the National Institute of Mental Health describes as having these symptoms:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, empty or overwhelmed
  • Crying more often than usual or for no apparent reason
  • Worrying or feeling overly anxious
  • Feeling moody, irritable or restless
  • Oversleeping or being unable to sleep even when her baby is asleep
  • Having trouble concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Experiencing anger or rage
  • Losing interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
  • Suffering from physical aches and pains, including frequent headaches, stomach problems and muscle pain
  • Eating too little or too much
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding friends and family
  • Having trouble bonding or forming an emotional attachment with her baby
  • Persistently doubting her ability to care for her baby
  • Thinking about harming herself or her baby
  • PPD typically develops between a week and a month after delivery, and only a healthcare professional can diagnose it. So, it is important that new mothers or their loved ones seek help if the condition is suspected. And, as with any form of depression, it is critical that family members and healthcare providers take suicide prevention steps if needed.

Treating PPD

Postpartum depression can be treated with different forms of counseling (also called talk therapy) including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). It can also be addressed with antidepressant medication. And, the two types of treatment can be used together. A woman’s healthcare provider determines the proper approach based on her individual situation.

Don’t Suffer in Silence

Too often women feel pressured by the expectation that motherhood will be a “joyous” experience and consequently don’t feel comfortable taking action when symptoms of postpartum depression appear. The fact is, PPD is common and very treatable. If you or someone you know is experiencing it, seek help promptly. And if you feel the urge to harm yourself or your baby, call 911 or a suicide prevention hotline like the Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK(8255) immediately. You will receive caring, compassionate support and assistance. If you have a non-urgent desire to talk with someone about how you are feeling after childbirth, contact us online at communityreachcenter.org or by phone at 303-853-3500 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We have centers in the northside Denver metro area of Adams County including the cities of Thornton, Westminster, Northglenn, Commerce City and Brighton.