Finding women the help they need
PITTSFIELD -- When Liz Oakes checked herself into a local hospital in an emotional crisis, she quickly realized the staff was not trained to help a woman with postpartum depression.
"I was told there was no difference -- when I knew myself; I knew exactly what was wrong with me, and it doesn't present in the same way," said Oakes, of Hinsdale, of her ordeal when her second child was born 21 2 years ago. "I didn't feel comfortable telling them what was going on in my head because their lack of training would lead them to call DSS [Department of Social Services] when there was no reason to."
Oakes, now 39, doesn't blame those caregivers who didn't know how to help her other than to offer Zoloft. She feels that they had the best intentions, but none of the right tools.
That experience is why Oakes has become a co-facilitator of Berkshire County's first postpartum support group, which began meeting biweekly at Redfield House in Pittsfield last month. She's also involved with the new Berkshire County Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Coalition, which is working to bring postpartum resources and training to medical professionals.
Perinatal emotional complications -- the blanket term for pre- and post-birth mood problems -- are also the subject of new research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School at Worcester. This week, Berkshire County mothers will be contributing to the study in focus groups to talk about barriers to care they've experienced locally.
"There is a huge fear that women have that they're losing their minds, they're going crazy, that they're the wrong person to be their child's mother," said Liz Friedman, program director of MotherWoman, an Amherst nonprofit collaborating with UMass on the study. Those fears are "because of what the illness may do to them, but partly because they don't know that what they're going through is actually very common."
About one in eight mothers experience perinatal emotional complications, and yet the conditions are still shrouded in secrecy and misunderstanding, said Friedman, who went through postpartum depression eight years ago.
"It's not the sign of being a bad mother, it's just a sign of what they're going through," she said. "When women know that, they feel incredible relief. It doesn't change the situation, but at least there's perspective."
The aim of the county's new Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Coalition is to figure out exactly what resources are available for women going through these complications and to make those providers accessible.
"We're starting to build this network so facilitators can say, here's a list of who we have in the area. And at that point, empower the mom to make the call," said Alisa Blanchard, co-founder of Gathering Resources of Women (GROW).
Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director at The Brien Center, said that most women will feel brief "baby blues," but if the sadness persists and is accompanied by anxiety, crying, sleep issues or difficulty bonding with their baby, mothers should seek help. For crises, the Brien Center has a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week line at (413) 499-0412.
"First of all, tell someone," Michaels said. "There is this myth that after you have a baby you should just feel happy and overjoyed, but a lot of times it's very stressful and intense."
Dr. John Dallenbach, a pediatrician in Pittsfield, has been a vocal member of the new coalition because he sees his specialty as the frontlines for screening mothers, who visit often for their newborns' checkups.
"If there are mood problems, we often are the receiving end because mothers will come in much more often and have a lot more concern about their baby," Dallenbach said. He said he has sometimes received almost daily calls from severely anxious mothers who worry over their infants' behaviors that are actually totally normal.
When Sarah DiFazio's twins were born last July, the Dalton woman immediately began feeling what she would eventually identify as postpartum depression. But from her time in the hospital through multiple experiences at different centers, DiFazio found that her severe anxiety and depression weren't understood.
"I think of it as what should be a multi-tiered safety net, but there were holes at each step, and I kept falling and falling through the holes," DiFazio said. "I felt scared, and I felt overwhelmed, and here I was with these two newborn babies, I had just had a C-section, and I had a 4-year-old who needed mommy, too."
DiFazio eventually found help and has since recovered. Now, she is a big proponent for the changes happening in the county.
"I feel so, so strongly that I should not have had to go through the hell I went through," said DiFazio, 34. "I want to save other women that hell, and I want to make sure there's something in place for everybody, because there are so many women out there that I think might have given up in my situation."
To reach Amanda Korman:
or (413) 496-6243.
A new postpartum support group, open to all new mothers, meets at the community room at Redfield House, 48 Elizabeth St., Pittsfield, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., second and fourth Fridays of the month.
For mothers interested in participating in the UMass-Worcester study, which takes place from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday, email email@example.com or call (413) 253-8990.
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