Gwyneth Paltrow and Bryce Dallas Howard Discuss Post Partum Depression

In Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest GOOP Newsletter, she opens up about her bout with post-partum depression. She says that she did not realize she had it at the time, but that now in retrospect, that she did suffer from it, and wants to learn more about it:

“When my son, Moses, came into the world in 2006, I expected to have another period of euphoria following his birth, much the way I had when my daughter was born two years earlier. Instead I was confronted with one of the darkest and most painfully debilitating chapters of my life. For about five months I had, what I can see in hindsight as postnatal depression….”

Also, in the same newsletter is a beautiful article by Bryce Dallas Howard about her personal experience with the disease. It is too long to  include here, but can be read at the link above. Howard, actress in films such as Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Lady in the Water and daughter of actor/director Ron Howard, became pregnant shortly after her marriage at age 25. Although excited about her pregnancy, when her son Theo was actually born, she  says she felt “nothing.” Periods of  inactivity, crying, and mood swings lasted for over a year, until she was reconnected “with my doctor who oversaw my care, and sent me to a therapist who diagnosed me with severe post-partum depression.”

“Post-partum depression is hard to describe—the way the body and mind and spirit fracture and crumble in the wake of what most believe should be a celebratory time. I cringed when I watched my interview on television because of my inability to share authentically what I was going through, what so many women go through. I fear more often than not, for this reason alone, we choose silence. And the danger of being silent means only that others will suffer in silence and may never be able to feel whole because of it.”

Many women suffer from what is called “baby blues” after the birth of a child. The new mom may feel sad, anxious, or overwhelmed and have crying spells and mood swings. This may be accompanied by loss of appetite and trouble sleeping. The symptoms are relatively mild, and resolve with the first two weeks after birth.

Aproximately 10% of new moms will go on to have postpartum depression. The symptoms are more severe, do not resolve in a short period of time, and may occur any time within the first year after birth. In addition, there may be more troubling symptoms such as thoughts of hurting the baby or oneself, as well as not having any interest in the baby.

There may be a number of factors that contribute to postpartum depression. First, Levels of hormones (progesterone, estrogen, thyroid hormone) that are normally high during pregnancy, drop dramatically in the first 24 hrs after birth and can cause mood swings and depression. Stressful physical changes such as anemia, fatigue and pain from the birth process can also contribute. Emotional factors, such as lack of support from family or friends, feelings of inadequacy as a mother and stress from changes in daily routine make matters worse. A previous history of depression and having multiple births also increases the risk of postpartum depression.

A small number of new mothers experience a more serious condition known as postpartum psychosis that includes symptoms of confusion, hallucinations and even attempts to harm herself or her child. A tragic example of this is the case of Andrea Yates who killed her five children in June of 2001 and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. There is currently a bill in the Texas legislature that would officially recognize postpartum mental illness as a legal defense for women who kill their children.

Postpartum depression is a serious condition and must be treated by a physician. Treatment can consist of talk therapy, medication or both.

For more information, click here to see the Resounding Health casebook on Postpartum Depression.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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