Surviving the Storm Postpartum Depression Can Turn the Joy of a New Child into a Mother's Darkest Days. with Treatment and Support, Recovery Is Possible

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan Stevens Daily Herald Health Writer

Pregnant with her first child, Paula Hutson dreamed of life as a perfect new mom.

She decorated a nursery, tucked dozens of tiny outfits into the drawers and imagined pushing the stroller on walks through her tree-lined West Dundee neighborhood.

When they learned it would be a girl, she and her husband, John, picked out a name: Emma Amanda, after Paula's great-grandmother. They decided Paula would quit her job to raise their daughter.

On Aug. 22, 2002, Paula Hutson gave birth to a beautiful blue- eyed infant and cried when the nurse placed Emma in her arms. It was one of the happiest times of her life.

Then everything fell apart.

Fueled by frustration, isolation and exhaustion, Hutson spiraled into a deep depression. She slept for hours every day, and every night she lashed out at her husband. Within two months, Hutson was sitting in the car in the garage, towels stuffed under the door to the kitchen, contemplating suicide while her baby slept in the house.

"Who needs a mother who is crying all the time, screaming all the time, fighting with her father all the time?" she said. "I thought this baby would be better off without me."

Hutson isn't the only new mom feeling that way. Postpartum depression affects an estimated one in 10 new moms, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The good news is postpartum depression is curable. If identified early, moms at risk of postpartum depression can even begin treatment during pregnancy to forestall the worst symptoms.

Untreated, postpartum depression can last for months, wreaking havoc on families and potentially damaging the child. More debilitating than the "baby blues," postpartum depression is marked by severe sadness, despondency, irritability, fatigue and obsessive anxiety about the infant.

Cases where mothers harm themselves or their children are rare - roughly 1 in 25,000 - but researchers have documented other long- term effects, including developmental delays and behavior disorders.

Awareness of the disorder is increasing - boosted, in part, by stories like that of Brooke Shields, who shares her harrowing experience with postpartum depression in a book released this month.

In "Down Came the Rain," Shields describes her crippling depression following the birth of daughter Rowan, 2. Shields says she wants to "take the mute button off" a subject many mothers are afraid to talk about.

In one study, only 20 percent of depressed mothers reported their symptoms to a doctor. The idea of a depressed new mom conflicts with cultural expectations of motherhood.

"This is supposed to be a time where the mother is joyful, fulfilled, happy," said Leslie Lowell Stoutenburg, director of the pregnancy and postpartum mood and anxiety disorder program at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network in the Northwest suburbs. "Because it deals with mental health issues, there is a tremendous amount of shame."

At the same time, experts in treating depression in pregnant and breast-feeding women can be difficult to find. In surveys, obstetricians, family practitioners and pediatricians said they didn't know how to diagnose or treat the illness.

With few established treatment programs, they often had nothing to offer, anyway. It reminds Lowell Stoutenburg of the days before domestic violence was routinely reported.

"When we sent women to the ER who were injured, nobody asked the woman, 'How did you get that black eye?' We didn't have any place to refer them," she said. "Now we have a standard of care and referral system for domestic violence."

In Illinois, a series of sensational postpartum depression cases in 2001, including the Chicago suicides of Melanie Stokes and Jennifer Mudd Houghtaling, triggered a statewide alarm. Politicians, doctors and patient advocates rallied for better training and more widespread screening. …