PROVO — New moms are often given a checklist of things to know before leaving the hospital with their inherently needy little ones.
And, until recently, the focus was mostly on the baby.
“We don’t want the moms to suffer,” said Kerri Abney, a licensed clinical social worker who works in the mother/baby unit at Utah Valley Hospital. She said a lot of moms go home with a new baby not knowing that feeling overwhelmed and weak is common, but can lead to bigger problems.
“A lot of women just feel like that’s the way it is because they’re a mom, but that isn’t true,” Abney said. “We want them to enjoy their time with their children.”
Utah Valley Hospital now screens all new moms for depression, anxiety and other mental health illnesses before leaving the hospital. The aim is to catch potential problems earlier and direct women who need it to treatment sooner.
“Aren’t you supposed to come home from the hospital and love your baby and want to spend all day with them, snuggle with them and be happy all the time? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” said Kelby Ellis, of Lehi, who experienced pretty serious postpartum depression with the births of all five of her children.
“I felt like I wanted to get in my car and drive away,” she said, recalling the first bout that hit hard and fast after bringing her oldest son home. She remembers thinking she couldn’t possibly go through it all again. “It was almost like an out-of-body experience for me.”
“I had been a fully functional, rational human being before I had this baby and now, I can’t do anything for myself,” Ellis recalls feeling. “I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t enjoying things I used to enjoy.”
She didn’t want to feel that way ever again.
That was 2009, and doctors didn’t know as much about postpartum depression as they know now — she was directed to the emergency room for IV fluids and eventually ended up in therapy and taking medication, which began to work after about six weeks. She pretty much felt she had to find her own way through it all.
After having her second child, Ellis didn’t know if the depression and anxiety would hit again, but she was more prepared.
“It kind of became apparent this was what I did after I had a baby,” she said. She endured it twice more and said Wednesday that she would not put herself and her family through it again.
“It’s too scary and disruptive, and there’s always this worry and this fear that you’re going to stay like that forever and live in this dark place forever,” Ellis said, adding that depression and anxiety affected everyone around her.
Perhaps one of the most challenging things about postpartum depression is that symptoms and treatment are different for everyone.
Abney said certain women are at higher risk of experiencing depression upon delivering a baby — those who’ve had a traumatic birth or other trauma event in their lives, single moms and others living with a lot of stress, and mothers whose babies end up needing extra care in the neonatal intensive care unit.
The trained social worker said medication can help, but more beneficial is therapy or talking with trained counselors.
“They need a safe place to process and learn different coping mechanisms,” Abney said.
The hospital uses the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale to determine whether moms need additional help working through it all. Best-case scenario, women are screened before delivery, at discharge, at their two-week appointment with the pediatrician and again at six weeks with the obstetrician. A score of 10 or above indicates potential risk for depression and anxiety, and women are at risk for up to a year after delivery.
“Most moms either have trouble sleeping or are feeling incredibly overwhelmed,” Abney said. “You can kind of see it on them.”
She hopes women won’t be afraid to talk about it, as they’re the only ones who know how they really feel.
After going through it four times (her last time after delivering twins), Ellis said she’s met plenty of moms with similar experiences to hers.
And while it’s still not openly talked about, she hopes women who experience mood changes after delivery don’t feel inferior.
“It is nothing you have done or created for yourself,” Ellis said. “It just happens, and it is unfortunate that it does happen, but in no way are you at fault for this. It’s not a choice people make. It’s something that happens with neurotransmitters in your brain and the hormones in your body that cause you to feel this way.”
“Give yourself a break and know that you’re not alone,” she said, adding that women need to be encouraged to ask for help when they need it.
It remains unknown why some mothers experience postpartum depression and others don’t, though Abney said research points to balancing hormones after delivery and how that impacts the chemicals in the brain.
“If the hormones don’t balance out after delivery … depression, anxiety and mental illness can happen,” she said. “This isn’t any different than if you were a diabetic and needed insulin.”
Issuing the survey to all moms, Abney said, will hopefully help to “normalize” the condition, get rid of the stigma surrounding postpartum depression and help women realize “they can’t just will it away.”
“There’s nothing wrong with them,” she said. “Sometimes we just need a little help.”
Being more accepting of help that is offered is one of the best things that has come from Ellis’ repeated diagnoses, as she said life has become a “wild ride” with five kids under age 8.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, that’s for sure,” she said. “But I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
In the thick of her darkest days, Ellis said she couldn’t even contemplate feeling like herself again, feeling like she would be miserable “forever.”
“I had to keep reminding myself, ‘It’s not a forever thing,'” she said. “‘It will get easier. You will feel like yourself again.'”