An Open Letter to Time Magazine About Postpartum Depression

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Monday, July 13, 2009

An Open Letter to the Editors of Time:

Time has done a great disservice to all mothers who are suffering and will suffer from postpartum depression (PPD). In an article called “The Melancholy of Motherhood” journalist Catherine Elton writes a distorted story that no doubt has already begun to confuse and stigmatize women with PPD.

We cannot understand why Time would choose to sensationalize what is a very serious medical issue for hundreds of thousands of women in the United States each year, and to create controversy around the MOTHERS Act, the one and only piece of legislation that would help to systematize support and services that are sorely lacking in so many places throughout our country.

There are several points in the article that concern us:

1.The MOTHERS Act is not “dividing psychologists” as Elton opines. The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers wholeheartedly endorse the MOTHERS Act. In fact, you neglect to mention that much of the medical community supports the bill. It has been publicly endorsed by the March of Dimes, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Nurse Midwives, the National Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition, and the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, among many others. You didn’t represent any of them in your piece, all of which are highly regarded organizations which have a long record of dedication to the health of both mothers and babies.

2.Elton calls screening controversial and infers it may not even work. Many women will tell you that screening saved their lives, and others who were not screened wish they had been so they could have received treatment sooner. In fact, Elton interviewed at least two such women but they were not represented in the article. Screening for PPD is an effective way to identify women who may have it. Both the sensitivity (misses few sufferers) and specificity (some, but not too many false positives) of the widely-used and validated Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, for instance, is very well-established. We’d be happy to send you multiple, contemporary, highly-regarded studies that support this.

3. Elton states that “… increased screening could lead to an increase in mothers being prescribed psychiatric medication unnecessarily.” First, the MOTHERS Act does not require screening. Second, none of the screening tools for depression were designed to take the place of evaluation by health care professionals, so it is manipulation to suggest that screening alone will yield treatment of any kind or specifically treatment via medication. In a study of large scale universal screening efforts of more than 1000 pregnant and postpartum women, screening for depression did not lead to greater rates of treatment (Yonkers et al., Psychiatric Services, 2009). This is because there are many barriers to treatment, regardless of a positive screen. Additionally, for those who are able and choose to be treated, many women elect methods that don’t include medication (Pearlstein et al., Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 2006).

4. Time should be more careful when discussing the causes of PPD. We were surprised to see such a well-regarded publication misrepresent the results of a small research study that provided evidence to support the idea that a subset of women are more susceptible to hormonal changes as a trigger for depression, such as PPD, by prefacing the results with the unsubstantiated statement that “pregnancy hormones … have little to do with PPD in most cases.” This study showed that for those with a known history of depression, the hormonal changes that occur following delivery may increase one’s risk for developing symptoms during the postpartum period. Yet Elton attempts to use these results to support Michael O’Hara’s overgeneralization that women without prior history of “lots of anxiety and depressive symptoms” (what does this even mean objectively?!) “are unlikely to have problems in the postpartum period – not even close to likely.” Reporting results out of context to support the opinions of a source is appalling.

The fact that women who have had depression or anxiety in the past are more likely to experience PPD is nothing new. This is only one of many risk factors that have been identified. Your article, however, attempted to make a previous history of depression or anxiety the single key to identifying PPD. This will lead women who are ill but who have never been clinically diagnosed or treated for a mental illness to believe they must not have PPD. Many women who suffer will tell you it was the first time they were ever treated for a mental illness and the first time they came to realize they may have suffered from depression or anxiety in the past. You also leave out women who have no history of depression or anxiety but ended up with PPD for other reasons. Perhaps you were not aware, for instance, that diabetes is a risk factor for PPD (Kozhimannil et al., JAMA, 2009), as is thyroiditis. Women who deliver multiples or have babies born with serious health problems also have a higher risk of getting PPD.

5. The language used in the article frustratingly minimizes the devastation that PPD can cause. Such phrases as “the melancholy of motherhood” and “still, there is no denying that the postpartum period is a difficult one for many women” almost brush PPD off as a blue funk or a trying transition time for new moms. This signifies a clear lack of understanding about the seriousness of this illness that somewhere between 10 and 20% of women around the world suffer. PPD impacts a mother’s ability to function on a daily basis. It is not a difficult period. Elton asks, “Does PPD screening identify cases of real depression or simply contribute to the potentially dangerous medicalization of motherhood?” It is no more medicalizing motherhood to identify and treat PPD than it is to identify and treat gestational diabetes, which is universally screened for and occurs in only 3.5% of mothers.

As Time reported in June, the National Academies fully endorses screening for parental depression and believes it is crucial, while also emphasizing that screening is not helpful unless there is effective follow up and treatment tied to it. Supporters of the MOTHERS Act share that belief. Although effective treatment is available, fewer than half of cases of postpartum depression are recognized (Gjerdingen et al., Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 2007). Even fewer of those women ever receive treatment of any kind.

We are terribly sorry about the experience of the one mother quoted in your article, which happens on rare occasions, but we believe that the MOTHERS Act would actually go a long way to prevent what happened to her. What this bill actually funds is research, education and awareness. If these pieces are put in place, women, families and medical professionals will be better educated to prevent false positives from screening. A well-trained and educated physician will know to refer the patient on to a specialist who can inform her of various treatment options and monitor her to ensure the treatment she chooses is effective. A woman who has been made fully aware of the kind of services she should receive and the risks and benefits of the treatments available to her will be able to make the best choice for herself and her family.

Time focused on one potential but unlikely consequence of the MOTHERS Act rather than the actual content of the bill and why it is so sorely needed. We are deeply disappointed.

Sincerely,

Mary Jo Codey, mother of 2, former first Lady of New Jersey, kindergarten teacher, New Jersey

Carol Blocker, mother of Melanie Blocker Stokes, Illinois

Sonia Murdock, co-founder and executive director of the Postpartum Resource Center of New York, past president of PSI, New York

Cheryl Beck, DNSc, CNM, FAAN, mother of 2, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing, co-author of the American Journal of Nursing 2006 Book of the Year award, Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders: A Clinician’s Guide, Connecticut

Amy D. Gagliardi, mother of 4, Director of a Perinatal Health Clinic at a Federally Qualified Health Center, writer, researcher and chair of the Woman's Health Sub-Committee of Connecticut's Medicaid Managed Care Council, Connecticut

Valerie Plame Wilson, mother of 2, author of Fair Game, New Mexico

Adrienne Griffen, mother of 3, founder of Postpartum Support Virginia, and mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for Postpartum Support International, Virginia

Heidi Koss-Nobel, MA, mother, psychotherapist, Chairperson of Postpartum Support International of Washington, Washington

George J. Parnham, Attorney at Law, co-founder of the Yates Children Memorial Fund, Texas

Ann Dunnewold, Ph.D., mother of 2, licensed psychologist, author of Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box, past president of Postpartum Support International, Texas

Diane G. Sanford, Ph.D., internationally-recognized expert on pregnancy and postpartum emotional health, medical advisory board member on Babycenter.com, adjunct associate professor at the St. Louis University School of Public Health, Missouri

Catherine Connors, mother, author of the Her Bad Motherblog, featured parenting blogger at Beliefnet.com, Maternal Health Editor at BlogHer.com and Partner/Managing Editor at Mamapop.com, Canada

Tonya Fulwider, mother of 2, executive director of Perinatal Outreach & Encouragement, regional coordinator for Postpartum Support International, Ohio

Adrienne Martini, mother of 2, author of Hillbilly Gothic: A Memoir of Madness & Motherhood, New York

Katherine Stone, mother of 2, author of Postpartum Progress, the most widely-read blog in the US on postpartum depression, WebMD 2008 Health Hero, Georgia

Erin Reilly, co-founder of Sound of Silence, Friends of the Postpartum Resource Centerof New York, New York

Jen Stoll, mother of 2, executive director of The Postpartum Resource Center of Kansas, Kansas

Erika Krull, MS, LMHP, mother of 3, mental health counselor, author of the Family Mental Health blog on Psych Central, Nebraska

Wendy N. Davis, Ph.D., mother of 2, psychotherapist & perinatal mood disorders consultant, founding director of Baby Blues Connection, PSI Volunteer Coordinator, Oregon

Therese Borchard, mother of 2, author of the Beyond Blue blog on Beliefnet, author of several books including The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World, Maryland

Carol Peindl, RN, MSN, CNS, psychotherapist/nurse for the Prenatal and Postpartum Center of the Carolinas, PSI coordinator for the state of North Carolina, North Carolina

Diana Lynn Barnes, Ph.D., mother of 2, award-winning psychotherapist, past president of Postpartum Support International, California

Lauren Hale, mother of 3, author of Sharing the Journeyblog, iVillage Community Leader for Postpartum Depression and Pregnancy & Depression/Mental Illness Message Boards, Georgia

Pec Indman, PA, EdD, MFT, mother of 2, psychotherapist, co-author of Beyond the Blues, A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression, Education and Training Chair of Postpartum Support International, expert panelistfor the Maternal and Child Health Bureau/HRSA, California

Tara Mock, mother of 2, author of the Out of the Valley blog for Christian postpartum depression support

Ivy Shih Leung, mother of 1, author of Ivy's PPD Blog, New Jersey

Helen Ferguson Crawford, mother of 2, architect, Georgia

Karen Kleiman, MSW, founder and director of The Postpartum Stress Center, author of several books on postpartum depression, Pennsylvania

Joan Mudd, mother, founder of the Jennifer Mudd Houghtaling Postpartum Depression Foundation, Illinois

Susan Dowd Stone, MSW, LCSW, mother of 1, NJHSS Certified Perinatal Mood Disorders Instructor, Public Reviewer for the National Institutes of Mental Health, author and Adjunct Lecturer at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University, New Jersey

Marcie Ramirez, mother, co-founder of the Maternal Mental Health Task Force of Middle Tennessee, PSI Coordinator of Middle Tennessee, Tennessee

Amber Koter-Puline, mother of 1, author of the Beyond Postpartumblogand Atlanta support group facilitator, Georgia

Amy Tobias, mother, Indiana

Kimmelin Hull, PA-C, LCCE, mother of three, director of Pregnancy to Parenthood and author of A Dozen Invisible Pieces and Other Confessions of Motherhood, Montana

Sylvia Lasalandra-Frodella, mother of 1, Constituent Relations for the former First Lady of New Jersey Mary Jo Codey, author of A Daughter’s Touch, New Jersey

Lisa Jeli, mother of 1, California

Susan McRoberts, mother of 3, author of The Lifter of My Head: How God Sustained Me Through Postpartum Depression

Sara Pollard, RN, BS, Clarian Women’s Health Services, Indiana

Amy Burt, MA, mother of 3, director of operations, Perinatal Outreach & Encouragement for Moms, Ohio Coordinator for Postpartum Support International, Ohio

Diane Ashton, MSW, mother of 2, founder of PPD Support Hawaii, Hawaii

Laurel R. Spence, MS, PA-C, mother of 3, Assistant Professor, Baylor College of Medicine, clinical physician assistant, Women’s Specialists of Houston, Yates’ Children Memorial Fund/Women’s Mental Health Initiative advisory council member, speaker’s bureau Mental Health America – Houston and Postpartum Support International member, Texas

Sara Binkley-Tow, MA, CIMI, CHBE, PCD (DONA), executive director of Moms Bloom, Michigan

Sarah Pond, mother of 1, founder of Mama2Mama and early childhood development facilitator, Canada

Birdie Meyer, RN, MA, CLC, mother, president of Postpartum Support International, winner of the 2008 Award of Excellence in Advocacy from the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, Indiana

Della Palacios, mother of 2, Florida

Kimberly Wong, founder and chair of the Perinatal Mental Health Task Force of Los Angeles, California

Dr. Shoshanna Bennett, Clinical Psychologist, past president of Postpartum Support International, founder and director of Postpartum Assistance for Mothers, author of "Postpartum Depression for Dummies", California

Ilyene Barsky, LCSW, The Center for Postpartum Adjustment, Florida

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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. Well done! I wish I could tranform my thought into such well written words. Thank you, ladies!

  2. John Smith says:

    You know Time is abjectly derelict in its duty when it offers, as the "opposing side," a person who seems to be an obvious Scientology sympathizer, Amy Philo. Did they do no research at all? Do they not understand the importance of vetting sources? Do they not realize that mentally ill people don't always have a grip on reality?

  3. Someone alerted me to this comment by John Smith. I'm pretty sure that you can't diagnose someone mentally ill without talking to them John. I am, to your disappointment, entirely stable and have been for 4 years and 8 months since I stopped swallowing prescribed poison called "Zoloft." I was not mentally ill before going on Zoloft, I nearly lost my son at the age of 3 days. Is it losing your grip on reality to be upset when almost losing your child?
    I can only assume that TIME had to cut down their story to make more room for other issues even though I know Catherine Elton spent a good two months doing research. It's too bad you don't think they vetted anything just because they quoted me. Perhaps you should contact their attorneys and accuse them of not thoroughly checking everything. After all they have a misprint about me in the hard copy of the original article, so perhaps you're right. Perhaps quoting Wisner who has multiple drug company affiliations was not the best plan.
    As for Scientology, as you wrote on Dr. G's blog, you think I am a Scientology poser and that Natural News is a Scientology front group. Gee you sound more than a little paranoid there John.
    So much for advocating for the mentally ill John. You've got people confused – do you have a problem with stigmatizing people for their apparent mental disorders, or do you simply prefer to respect those who do use drugs, and then call those who don't use drugs "crazy?"
    No, I'm not in denial, and as Katherine points out, the medication in my case did "more harm than good."
    The only good to come out of my taking Zoloft is that I can warn others. Try to find something more useful to do with your time than obsessing about me and my site John.

  4. Amy, John, STOP! As long as we all keep sniping at one another, the medical community doesn't have to address the very real issue of PPD and PPP.
    It is a true shame that Zoloft effected you as it did, but it has also helped many, including me. Perhaps rather than being angry at the drug, you should turn a long, appraising eye to the obviously uninformed physicians who perscribed it.
    Not all people who suffer from PPD need to be medicated, but the professionals who are around these Moms during their post partum periods need to be aware of what is "normal" and that which needs to be addressed further.
    This is what we all need to be working towards!

  5. I say, Amen to that, Momof4girls!!! We should definitely be looking more at the physicians and the need for them to become more educated about PPD, its risk factors, and how to properly detect/diagnose/treat it. This is another reason why the bill is so needed!

  6. Being calm and rational won't get her in Time….so I doubt it will happen sadly, as I think she does have a valid point about medications and the need for caution.