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    Postpartum depression can be severe

    By SUSAN ASCHOFF

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


    After a perfect pregnancy, Denise Burkart had a textbook delivery when her child was born last July.

    Three days later, it hit.

    "All I could do was cry," says the Pinellas Park mother of two.

    A childbirth and postpartum doula, or assistant, Burkart's expertise and her "common sense" were ravaged by postpartum depression.

    She asked the hospital to check them back in. The hospital refused, telling her to commit herself. She went to her obstetrician, who prescribed the anti-depressant Paxil.

    In a week, she says, she was herself.

    "It can be very scary."

    Burkart says her heart went out to Janet Gifford-Meyers, the Safety Harbor woman suffering postpartum depression who fled her family last Friday. Gifford-Meyers' body was found in a Pasco County park Tuesday.

    Burkart wants the public to understand postpartum depression is an illness, not a character flaw.

    National statistics show that every year at least 10 percent of new mothers experience serious symptoms, or about 400,000 women in the United States.

    Marie Osmond got it. So did the late Princess Diana. Osmond ran away from home after her seventh child was born. She later got help for "the darkest hole that I've ever experienced."

    Society tells victims to "pull yourself together," says Jane Honikman, founding director of Postpartum Support International, based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

    "The woman is stigmatized three ways. There's a stigma because it's about mental health, because it's a woman and because it's childbirth."

    All are weighted with unrealistic expectations and prejudices, says Honikman.

    The causes of postpartum depression are not fully understood. It may occur when abnormally high levels of estrogen and progesterone during pregnancy suddenly fall after childbirth. Meanwhile, adrenaline surges through a woman's body in a preprogrammed "protector" response to the infant, experts say.

    Studies show there is an increased risk if there is a history of mental illness in the family.

    As many as 80 percent of all postpartum women get the "baby blues" -- fatigue and anxiousness that dissipate after a couple of weeks. But as many as 30 percent of new mothers develop more serious depressions requiring help, says Honikman.

    Gifford-Meyers, whose daughter, 3-week-old Rebekah, is her second child, was hospitalized four days last week with depression.

    A sufferer may be hyperactive and anxious or lethargic and weepy. Some experience panic attacks. Others have nightmarish fantasies about mutilating their baby.

    "We have a woman who washed the baby until its skin came off," says Arlene Huysman, a clinical psychologist in Miami and the author of A Mother's Tears: Understanding the Mood Swings That Follow Childbirth. "Many suicides can be attributed to postpartum depression. These women do that in order not to hurt their child."

    One or two out of every 1,000 women who give birth will become psychotic. Then a mother may be gripped by hallucinations or hear voices.

    A Canadian psychotherapist, Dr. Suzanne Killinger-Johnson, flung herself and her sleeping infant son into the path of a Toronto subway train in August. The baby was killed instantly; his 37-year-old mother died from her injuries a few days later.

    On Monday a woman is scheduled to go to trial in Indiana in the deaths of seven people when she drove the wrong direction on a divided highway. Her family says she was suffering from postpartum depression.

    But even a woman suffering mild postpartum depression may be too overwhelmed to get help.

    New York State recently began requiring hospitals to alert new mothers to the possibility of postpartum disorders.

    For Burkart, the "small things felt like the end of the world."

    "The postpartum part of care is so important because it's taking care of the mother."

    - Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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