ABC Television Should Be ASHAMED of "Private Practice" Postpartum Psychosis Treatment

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First, let me sincerely apologize. I'm horrified that I encouraged you to watch what I thought would be a responsible storyline about postpartum depression on the ABC network televisionshow "Private Practice". Never again will I tellthereaders of Postpartum Progressto watch something that I haven't already seen myself and can't fully endorse. Sorry I waited to write about this until now, but I was so spitting mad late last night I couldn't calm down enough to type.

Last night's episode was promoted, both to the public and to the members ofPostpartum Support International,as one about postpartum depression, but — surprise, surprise — it immediately devolved into a show about postpartum psychosis and a mom attempting to kill her child by holding her down under the water in the bathtub. Every time the media, whether entertainment or news, chooses to cover perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, the portrayal is always of some out-of-control woman committingor attempting to commitinfanticide. They NEVER represent the fact that 99.99% of women withperinatal mood and anxiety disorders (including PPD andpsychosis)NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVERdo anything to harm a hair on their infants' heads. Thatall of them are very good and loving mothers who simply have an illness that requires treatment. They never represent the fact that there is so much more to these illnesses and that postpartum depression is very common and treatable.They make it seem like every mom who does have postpartum psychosis ends up killing their child.

In the name of getting more viewers for "Private Practice," ABC andthe showsproducers have irresponsibly represented perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and potentially traumatized HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of new mothers. I do NOT exaggerate when I say that. Just ask yourself how many husbands, family members and friends who saw the show are looking at the new moms around them today wondering whether they're capable of murder? Just ask yourself how many moms are not going to reach out for treatment because they now think their babies will be taken away as the character's was? Just ask yourself how many moms won't get in contact with a healthcare professional because they're afraid the person will behave like Violet, the therapist on "Private Practice"?

There were so many things wrong with the storyline that I don't know where to begin. The symptoms the mother presented could have been postpartum depression (feeling overwhelmed,having problems sleeping),postpartum anxiety (constant worries about the baby) or psychosis (mania, hearing her baby crying — which at firstindication seemed like she was hallucinating but thenthe momactually finds the baby in the lobby andit IS crying). Every mom who saw the show with any of these symptoms potentially now sees herself as psychotic, which is most likely not the case. And even if she is psychotic, she can get treatment and recover and move on. Violet, the therapist on the show played by Amy Brenneman, may be one of the worst ever to practice therapy on the planet. She displays very little knowledge of these illnesses and how to treat themin both her words and deeds, and she shows more concern for herself than the client. She lets her own personal problems completelyinterfere with the treatment of her patient. Her line "She could snap her neck" almost gave me a complete heart attack. I can't share with you the string of swear words I used at that utterance. As one of my son's storybooks says: I'm 10 X 10 furious, which is 100% furious.

As the PR Chair for Postpartum Support International, it was my responsibility to write the text of ABC's public service announcement. I happily did so because I was excited about the opportunity to educate millions of people, and I wrote it about postpartum depression because that is the direction I was given. Had I been given more truthful information up front, I could have written something completely different and more appropriate to the episode. Since I didn't, the PSA just continues to blur the lines between postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis as if they are one in the same.

To make things worse, despite Postpartum Support International beinginformed it would happen, there was NO message at the end of the show offering a link to ABC's website and the public service announcement. This means viewers were completely unawarethey could go to the "Private Practice" section of ABC.com and get the PSI web address and phone number to get more information and support. I checked twice, using my TIVO to go through the end of the show frame by frame in case the message flipped by fast and I missed it. They did have enough time,I notice,to inform me that the show's costume designer was Cynthia Bergstrom and that the department head hair stylist was Gwyne Redner. I guess it was more important to use that time to promote next week's crossover episodes between "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice".

To make things EVEN worse, the "Private Practice" website now has a poll with the following question: "Should a woman undergoing psychiatric treatment after nearly drowning her child be allowed to see the baby?" Possible answers: Yes, it will motivate her to get better or No, She can't be trusted right now. Gee, I wonder how the public will respond … Fortunately, as of now, the pollshows more people answering Yes, but that's only because I and all mycolleagues have been rushing to the site to answer it. Does ABC think that poll is particularly helpful? Was that part of its strategy to help others and destigmatize these illnesses?

Additionally, the show's Medical Researcher's Blog, written by Moira McMahon, does a fairlylousy job of explaining postpartum psychosis, and doesn't mention any of the other illnesses in the perinatal mood and anxiety disorder spectrum and how they may be different, or even how rare psychosis is. At the end of her post, she writes:

"But should a woman who almost drowned her baby have access to her child?

And how did her husband miss her mental illness?

What would you do?"

Wow. That goes a long way in eliminating stigma. Or helping people understand the treatability of these illnesses. Or helping husbands know what signs to look for. Or helping new mothers feel safe in reaching out for help.

There's no point in complaining to ABC about it — they'll just say it was out of their control, they tried, there was no space, time, etc. I know how it works. I've worked at a Fortune 100 corporation — it's always easier to beg for forgiveness after the fact than to do what you should. But they can't blame this on anyone else: the show, which airs on the ABC Television Network, is produced by ABC Studios (as well as The Mark Gordon Company and Shondaland).

If I did complain directly, they'd argue that at least they covered the topic and that they did put togetherthe 22-second PSA featuring actress Amy Brenneman (standing in a corner)on their site which they didn't have to do. That is true. But it doesn't excuse the fact that it was possible to do this entire thing much more responsibly. They could have listened to admonitions to please not do the show on postpartum psychosis because it oversensationalizes the illness and makes it seem like every mom who is ill must have it. They could have consulted true experts on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders to get it right. They could have aired the link to the PSA that they promised. If you say you want to help others, why not follow through on it 100%.

Just as I stopped going to Tom Cruise movies, I will not watch "Private Practice" ever again. In fact, I may stop watching my favorite ABC show "Grey's Anatomy" and switch over to NBC which has equally compelling shows in the 9pm EST time slot ("The Office" and "30 Rock"). I ask you to please join meto PULL THE PLUG ON PRIVATE PRACTICE. C'mon ladies, use your voices.

And, no, I'm not overreacting, and here's why: We have to start somewhere. We have to stand up at some point and let the media know the way they treat perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and mental illness in general, is unacceptable. We have to tell them that they power they have to influence and move others is much too enormous to be improperly used. We have to make sure the information that moms and moms-to-be receive is correct and measured and encourages them to get the treatment they need. We have a responsiblity to help the infants in our country have healthy mothers. If we don't make our feelings known loud and clear nothing will every change. We owe it to many millions of women who will suffer perinatal mood and anxiety disorders in the next decade.

If you plan to stop watching "Private Practice", email me at stonecallis@msn.com. I also encourage you to write about this on your own blogs and use the tag "Pull the Plug on Private Practice".

Here are some other bloggers' takes on this:

Susan Stone at Perinatal Pro: "ABC's Private (Mal)Practice Fails to Present the Facts In a Botched Opportunity to Raise PPD Awareness":

"Postpartum psychosis is extremely rare with incidence less than 2% and was not accurately presented in this three ring circus. The implication that postartum depression and postpartum psychosis are interchangeable labes is incredibly irresponsible.

But the show's mothers weren't the only target of ignorance and blatant indifference to client care. The show also managed to insult every health care professional associated with the mother's illness. The therapist came off as a clueless, self-absorbed nut case who failed to advocate for her client …"

Lauren Hale at Unexpected Blessing: "ABC's Private Practice Misses the Mark"

"Then Violet didn’t want to give the baby back to the mother for fear that THEY would be the ones thought of as “what were you thinking!?” We work SO hard to fight against the myth that a mother’s baby will be taken from her if she seeks help. I can’t help but think about how many new moms saw this show and may possibly avoid seeking help because of this portrayal."

Amber at Beyond Postpartum: "Does ABC Care?":

"WHY did Rachel have to hold the baby under the bathwater when she fell?… This was a great opportunity to go down a different path. To talk about something more common and educate a population of Americans who are VERY unsympathetic and completely filled with rage. Below each and every national media article about postpartum psychosis you see hundreds of comments from angry people who do not understand postpartum mood disorders. They chastize the women who suffer and offer no sympathy. They make statements like, "How could she do this to a helpless child? She was not sick, she was just selfish." Those of us who have suffered or know someone who did know better. But look people, MOST Americans are not educated and need to be. Let's utilize the means that we have to help them to learn…to understand…to see the full story and to find their way to a place where in America routine screening, referral and treatment are no longer options but mandatory steps in the postpartum period.

I think ABC lost an opportunity here to shed light on a real and prevalent illness for their selfish desire to get ratings and viewers from the more dramatic and interesting spin that just one aspect of the story illicited. Oh well. At least it got people talking about PPMDs."

NOTE: This post represents my views only, not those of the board of Postpartum Support International.

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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Comments

  1. WOW. I don't watch that show anyway, but that's highly irresponsible, and just gross.

  2. It is so frustrating how the media perpetuates these misconceptions. I used to be a fan of this show but I don't think I'll be watching it anymore. I've linked to your blog from my own and have emailed your message to everyone I know. Thank you for being a voice!

  3. Isn't it true that pshychosis happens in as little as 1-2% of new moms… yet it seems like this is all we hear of in the media? This is truly upsetting. And, honestly, I'm glad I'm not a fan to begin with. I did watch The Office and 30 Rock last night and had a good laugh.
    BTW, have you watched any of GH's take on PPD with their character Robin? Once again, ABC is missing the mark.
    I will link this post for my weekend spotlight on my blog.

  4. This hyper sensationalism in the media happens frequently and is WHY I almost never promote TV shows at the Online PPD Support Group, Katherine.
    Unfortunately, television producers can't seem to resist the urge to go with hype over facts and this results in promoting fear over help every time.
    Now, we at our humble support sites will have to deal with the fallout. Frankly, I'd rather do that than deal with ignorant angry people over at the Private Practice Website Poll….been there done that.
    Am I getting too old for this @%#$?!
    NEVER!! I just choose my battles a bit more wisely now.
    I won't be watching Private Practice….
    Take care, dear and keep on keeping on! You ROCK!
    Love and Hugs,
    Jess Banas

  5. I think the poll upsets me the most. I can totally understand your anger and frustration after working so hard on writing the PSA (which I thought was excellent btw, even if it is connected with this trainwreck). But…. Private Practice and Grey's BOTH go for the outrageous and sensational, so I guess I didn't have my expectations set too high.
    The poll though is over the top and is incredibly UNhelpful to any woman who may be dealing with PPD–especially with the portrayal of PPD and Psychosis being so blurry in the episode, and especially when presented in tandem with the PSA.
    So I'm disappointed, but not surprised I guess. Mostly I'm just sorry for the women this may harm, and that you put so much effort into educating when this show did nothing but sensationalize.

  6. Shane, I wondered the same thing…it's .1 – .2% (1 or 2 per 1000). So less than 1/2%.
    I thought the same thing, Val. –disappointed but not overly surprised. Kind of along the lines of how Tom Cruise brought negative attention to PPD, but got people talking anyway, and that (in my world) got the door open for far more honest discussion. I stopped seeing his movies, but do allow for the awareness he brought inadvertently to PPD.

  7. I don't watch this show, but I was a fan of Grey's Anatomy. I'll never watch it again. This is sick and I can't think of any other way to show my disgust at ABC. I am thinking of all the women who are in doubt right now, and hope they find your website.

  8. Amen! I saw the show and was annoyed at the way it combined ppd and post-paartum psychosis (as so often happens!) and how horrible that, once again, women are being told to be afraid to get help, to be honest about their symptoms, are thinking of themselves as potential murderers as soon as they being experiencing the symptoms of perinatal mood disorders. Argh!

  9. I'm so glad you voiced your opinion about this. My friend emailed me yesterday to tell me to tune into Private Practice because it was about PPD. I am just now starting to feel like myself again after a long battle with PPD, so I was of course interested to see this portrayed on television. As soon as I realized they were going down the psychosis route, I was so disappointed (but not surprised) and I actually turned the show off as soon as the mother said she tried to drown her baby (not to mention that it brought out a lot of anxious feelings in me that I haven't felt in a long time). I immediately went online to see if others were as upset about this as I was and I'm so glad my feelings are mirrored by so many others. PPD is hard. Really, really HARD. For ABC to focus on psychosis, it's almost like they are saying depression alone isn't interesting enough to be taken seriously. It's Hollywood – I get it. But don't use psychosis as your story line then call it PPD in your public service announcement. You're mis-educating your viewers and hurting the very cause you are trying to support.

  10. Thank you for being such a strong and knowledgeable voice on behalf of PPD moms and survivers out there. This episode was an utter failure in its attempt to educate the public about PPD. All it did was feed the general public’s misconceptions about PPD overall. Unfortunately, it only shows how much further we still need to work together (us bloggers and the experts in the field) to educate everyone and clear away misconceptions. ABC should’ve known better than to air an episode dealing with this subject without first consulting with the experts. Shame on ABC! It's no wonder I never watch any shows on that network.

  11. a few years ago on Young and the Restless they had a character who was showing signs of PPD. I started Tivo-ing it because I wanted to see where they were going to go with the story line. I was so happy to see them portraying it in a very realistic light. She had anxiety and would not leave the house. In one episode she got the baby ready, put her jacket on and then never left the house and sat like that for hours. I felt so connected to this story line and I knew others would too. In the end, she had a doctor come and do a home visit, he prescribed meds and two days later she went on a business trip out of state. Then I was pissed. It seems whenever the media attempts to get involved, they murder the true face of PPD. That's why sites like yours and all the brave women who speak out about this illness are so important.

  12. I'm so glad you're saying this! I found it horrifying as well!!!! And it just made me hopeless that the public will know more about PPD, not less. I just kept thinking "give her the baby!" I honestly turned it off and didn't watch the ending b/c it was so false and upsetting.

  13. Although I have not yet viewed the episode of Private Practice, I cannot begin to express how deeply saddened and dissappointed I am to read your latest post. I appreciate your anger over being duped into believing the episode was about postpartum depression when in fact it was about postpartum psychosis(PPP). However, I cannot for the life of me understand why you chose to "hang out to dry" women who have suffered at the hands of the most severe of all the postpartum spectrum of illnesses: PPP.
    Yes, it is true that 99% of women who experience postpartum mood disorders do not harm a hair on their infants' heads. But for your information, those who are unfortunate enough to experience PPP and have–because of their delusions or hallucinations–contemplated or ended up harming their children or themselves cannot be presumed to be bad mothers or unloving.
    Being as active as you are in postpartum work, you should know that women with PPP are not evil or bad but are simply ill and require immediate treatment for a condition that has been recognized over and over again to be one of the most serious of all mental illnesses. For you to suggest that women who sadly are driven by sickness to contemplate harming their children are not good mothers or not loving is just adding to the stigma and lack of accurate information that surrounds PPP. A situation that may actually prevent a woman experiencing such symptoms from getting the help she needs. What good is there in that?

  14. I never watch private practice or grey's b/c they annoy me, becoming a physician is not all fun and easy and then they show them going around having crazy romances and affairs even during duty hours too and the actors annoy me even more. I wish I had so much fun in med school. Your post strengthens my belief that these shows are far from reality and completely idiotic.

  15. Mark Bentley says:

    This was a pretty horrific way to treat the entire illness and I am totally appalled. Needless to say, while I used to like "Gray's Anatomy" and sometimes watched "Private Practice" my wife and I have decided to skip them from now on. I want nothing to do with a show that would do so much damage to such a good cause.
    I know that when my wife had postpartum (quite badly), it was hard enough for us to get treatment for just postpartum. It was like we either had to say it was postpartum and wait 6-9 months (yes, really), or go to E.R. and get admitted as psycosis! Once we found a doctor to treat her and give her the meds that she needed she was able to do well and improve. A show like this only makes it harder for families to ask for basic help and for mothers to admit that they need help.
    I am truly appalled with this and I suggest sending letters to the show's advertisers asking why they would support this kind of a show. Be vocal about how you feel! Advertisers hate to promote "the wrong" impression and shows hate to lose viewers and advertisers. Sure, it wouldn't be as sensational to show a woman come in with a strong case of postpartum and get better with a mix of drugs, therapy and family support, but it would be a lot more reasonable and helpful for everyone.

  16. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Oh my goodness Hajara. I can see how you would have gotten that impression from reading my post and I sincerely apologize. You are exactly right, and I have tried to change the post a bit accordingly. Women with postpartum psychosis are no more at fault than women with any other perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, and are just as good and loving moms as any one else. Those who get treated get better and move on, just like the women with other PMADs. Additionally, the media likes to portray that every mom with postpartum psychosis harms her child. That couldn't be further from the truth. Thank you so much for your feedback.

  17. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I thought the same thing. Just give her the baby. Yes, it may be a standard of care that they are both monitored while together until the crisis is over but for goodness sake it's her child and she's the mom and their bonding is important. And for the therapist to say such awful things. All she needed was understanding and a safe place to be treated.

  18. I'm so disappointed to read this. Because I live abroad I watch very delayed episodes (Swiss TV does carry both these shows, about 6 months behind the US, sometimes longer). After I read your announcement I was looking forward to seeing how they treated this. Though knowing how badly both shows have dealt with infertility and in the case of Grey's HOM pregnancies, I didn't have high hopes. Still. It was so hard for me to say outloud that I had PPD, stuff like this is exactly why.