The United States is failing its mothers

By Casey Newman

I am the 1 in 5. Chances are, if you look around, you’ll find one of them too. We’re the moms who struggle. The moms who are overwhelmed. The moms who need a village, but for the majority of us, that village doesn’t exist. 

One in 5 of us will experience a postpartum mental illness, which can range from debilitating depression to crippling OCD or anxiety to psychosis. These conditions are hard enough on their own but throw in a newborn, sleep deprivation, a healing body, a possibly traumatic birth experience, and — for most mothers — a dismal support system and you can see how some of us are barely holding on. Some of us even die. In the United States, the greatest country on Earth, we are losing mothers to postpartum mental illness. And we are doing nothing to stop it. 

Postpartum mental illness is a leading complication of childbirth. And postpartum suicide is the second-leading cause of death during the postpartum period. But we don’t get warned about it. Instead, everything is focused on pregnancy, baby clothes and birth. We give birth, get handed a packet on everything from breastfeeding, diaper changing and physical postpartum healing and we’re sent on our way none the wiser that our worlds could turn upside down.

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A baby gets at least six doctor’s appointments in its first year of life. A mother gets one postpartum checkup, where, if she’s lucky, a nurse will ask her two or three questions about if she’s feeling sad. What happens to the mothers who, instead of feeling sad, can’t eat or sleep because they’re afraid their babies will die? What happens to the mothers who have intrusive, scary thoughts but are too afraid to speak up for fear their child will be taken from them? We fall through the cracks and we suffer. 

Like many other moms, I was afraid to say anything at my six-week postpartum checkup after I had my second daughter. I was asked two questions: “Are you feeling sad?” and “Have you lost interest in things you enjoy?” My answer to both of those was no, so I must be fine, right? Check and check. 

I wasn’t fine. I was really, really angry and didn’t feel like myself. But these feelings weren’t on the questionnaire, and everyone told me I was just stressed, so I kept quiet. What I learned later was that yes, this is postpartum depression. It just doesn’t look like it. 

I kept quiet. But what happens when someone speaks up? It turns out, most of the time, they fall through the cracks, too. 

Alexis D’Achille knew she didn’t feel right. She sought help from several doctors, hospitals and crisis centers in her area, telling them she was having intrusive thoughts and crippling anxiety and sadness. They turned her away and reassured her what she was experiencing was just “baby blues.” Alexis died by suicide when her daughter was 6 weeks old. 

Then there’s Carol Coronado. Carol, during an episode of postpartum psychosis, killed her three children. She showed the signs — became withdrawn, disheveled, crying, even outright asking for help. But her husband and family members didn’t know how to interpret the signs she was displaying and what they could mean.

Despite the evidence that Carol was experiencing postpartum psychosis, she was convicted of murder and sent to prison, where she remains. She didn’t receive treatment for her psychosis. 

Like with other maternal health statistics, the postpartum mental illness statistics are much worse for Black mothers who either don’t have access to proper treatment or delay reporting symptoms for fear that their babies will be taken away

Not only that, the often inadequate screening tools used by healthcare providers are less relevant for people of color. 

After the birth of my first daughter, I was hit with severe postpartum depression. I was nearly unfunctional. When I called my doctor, I was told that because I wasn’t having thoughts of harming myself or my baby, I’d have to wait for an appointment. When I sought the help of a therapist, again I had to wait. Several weeks, in fact. 

I had trouble getting out of bed, caring for my baby and I was left alone. My husband couldn’t take time off and my other family members struggled with the same issue, leaving me struggling until someone could take a day off here or there.

The system is failing us. We need help. We need adequate screening tools. We need better education — for mothers and their families. We need paid leave for us and our families. We need to be listened to and we need a village. 

They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and they’re right. But it also takes a village to support a mother.

Casey Newman is a mother of two from Green who depends on wine to get her through bathtime and bedtime. She is a maternal and women’s health advocate who volunteers with several birth and maternal rights organizations and has spoken to Congress members about issues affecting moms.