Faculty research suggests need for more education on postpartum mood disorders

A study by Western Carolina University counseling faculty suggests health care providers could help parents who are hiding symptoms of postpartum mood disorders by talking with all obstetric patients about the disorders, assessment, support groups and treatments, even if a patient does not disclose symptoms.

More than half of the women who participated in a survey for a study published in the December issue of the British journal Counselling and Psychotherapy Research said their health care providers did not mention postpartum mood disorders, or PMD, issues to them before or after they gave birth.

Curtis_Russ08“As I began researching this issue, I was struck by how reticent medical professionals were in asking mothers and parents about postpartum symptoms,” said Russ Curtis (pictured above right), lead researcher in the study and associate professor of counseling at WCU. “I also was struck by how much these women suffered, often in silence, afraid to share their feelings and thoughts with others for fear of having their child or children taken away.”

Research cited in the study suggests 15 percent of parents experience mild to severe symptoms of PMD, and common symptoms reported in the study’s online survey of 252 parents included thoughts of suicide, inadequacy, or hitting, smothering or stabbing a child; emotions such as anxiety and depression; and behaviors such as uncontrollable crying, and overprotecting or rejecting children.

The survey found that although the majority of women experienced symptoms while they were expecting or immediately after the birth, about 40 percent had their first symptoms between two months and 1 year after the birth.

Also, 70 percent of the survey respondents who had more than one child reported symptoms were just as bad or worse with additional births.

“This is particularly unique considering the vast majority of research has focused upon first births,” said Curtis.

Robertson_Phyllis08Phyllis Robertson (pictured at right), an assistant professor of counseling at WCU who worked with Curtis on the project, also said the information from the study suggests the newness of parenthood may not be a significant factor in the development of postpartum mood disorders.

“The absence of symptoms with the first birth does not predict its nonoccurrence in later births,” said Robertson (pictured).

The study proposes expanding assessments and education efforts about effective treatments in several ways:

• Inform all parents, regardless of past childbearing experiences, about PMD symptoms and treatment options, including access to an emergency contact source.

• Screen expecting parents at various times for PMD symptoms through postpartum and postnatal depression screening scales.

• Raise awareness of Web sites that offer support networks for PMD and information about treatment.

• Staff medical offices with a mental health provider knowledgeable about PMD who can carefully screen parents with PMD concerns, provide counseling and offer continuing care to ensure the safety of parents and children.

“It appears to me that by adequately screening all mothers during and after pregnancy, and by attending to parents’ needs postpartum, much of their suffering, and risk to children could be alleviated,” said Curtis. “It is our hope that this information will help to continue to improve the medical services for parents who experience PMD.”

Curtis and Robertson were assisted in the study by Amy Forst and Carolina Bradford, who are now graduates of WCU’s counseling program. Robertson is leading the second part of the study, which entails further analyzing information from women who had multiple births.

“I am concerned about the number of women who did not seek professional help and their reasons for not doing so,” she said. “Many felt like they should just suffer through it with the support of family and friends. I worry that there is not enough education on the subject for parents.”

For more information, contact Russ Curtis by phone at (828) 227-3283 or by e-mail at curtis@email.wcu.edu.