Postnatal Depression Can Be Treated, Prevented

Many women struggling with the post-baby blues may expect only a hug or a couple of pills, but in new studies, doctors say counseling can not only treat this risky condition but prevent it, too.

Professional counselors can reduce rates of postnatal depression by 40 percent, while support from fellow mothers can reduce the risk of developing this dangerous disorder by half, they say.

In one paper, a team led by Jane Morrell of the University of Sheffield, northern England, divided more than 4,000 new mothers into three groups.

In the first two groups, the volunteers each received a weekly session of psychological counseling over eight weeks, using either of two techniques.

The so-called “cognitive behavior approach” focuses on unhelpful behavior patterns and thoughts in the mother, and helps overcome them by pointing out that these reflexes are a common part of the post-natal experience.

The “person-centered approach” emphasizes empathy and unconditional support for the mother’s feelings.

The third group was a “control” group of women who received standard health care treatment.

Women who were diagnosed with depression six weeks after giving birth were 40 percent less likely to have the same symptoms six months later if they had either form of counseling, the investigators found.

The second trial, likewise published in the British Medical Journal, identified 701 pregnant women in Ontario, Canada, who were estimated to be at risk of developing postnatal depression.

Half of the group were given standard post-natal care while the other half were given telephone support by a peer volunteer – a woman with first-hand knowledge of post-baby blues.

Getting this peer support halved the risk of depression at 12 weeks after birth, the report said.

“These trials add to the growing evidence that postnatal depression can be effectively treated and possibly prevented,” said lead researcher Cindy-Lee Dennis of the University of Toronto.

The barriers to treatment, however, remain high, she said.

Women are often unaware of the syndrome and are apt to deny or minimize its symptoms. And even when they do feel they need help, they may be unaware of treatment options or unwilling to reveal emotional distress.

“They fear being labeled mentally ill, having their children taken away, or being perceived as not fulfilling their maternal role,” she said.

Postnatal depression affects one in eight women in diverse cultures around the world, and is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality, usually through suicide.

The generally short-term but devastating mental disorder can also have a serious impact on infants and children, affecting cognitive, emotional and social development.

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