Ijeoma Okons and Kala Gause: Postpartum women should not walk alone

February 10, 2024. The Daily Reflector. By Ijoema Okons and Kala Gause.

2023-24 BCBSNC Foundation Schweitzer Fellows Ijeoma Okons and Kala Gause

People think the hard part is carrying the baby, but oftentimes it’s what comes after. What is supposed to be the most beautiful time bringing your child home for the first time can turn into a deep dark depression that no one prepared you for or provided resources to help.

Normalizing “baby blues’’ and symptoms of major depression diminishes the terrifying feelings some women experience. Women with postpartum depression cry until they can’t catch their breath. They are disconnected from life. They pull away from their newborn and their loved ones. They feel hopeless for the future. Yet the name that is associated with this experience is minimized to “baby blues,” disparaging the name of postpartum depression, which is one of the most traumatic experiences a mother can have.

As dental providers actively involved in providing perinatal oral health education, one of our participants shared her personal experience with postpartum depression. This led to a decline not only in her mental health but also in her oral health. She described the deterioration of the visual appearance of her teeth, which added to her depression. She mentioned that not only did she struggle to maintain her oral hygiene, it also became difficult to do the same for her baby.

While postpartum depression leads to a critical decline of the physical and mental stability of the mother, it also influences those who live in the home with her. It can impact an infant’s physical, behavioral and emotional development. Mothers are less likely to breastfeed, connect with their baby, or tend to their overall needs. In addition, maternal postpartum depression was found to be the strongest risk factor for paternal depression, affecting 24–50% of all fathers.

Pregnancy can compound the stress many women already in their daily life. Individuals experience the stress from having to excel at work while attending to their home life. Gender roles have suggested that most women are expected to clean, cook, and take care of the home, while also maintaining their health while carrying a child. Keeping in mind the significant toll that pregnancy has on the human body, it is nearly impossible at times to maintain all your responsibilities while attempting to care for your health, and later that of your baby’s. After giving birth, a mother’s responsibility doubles, but does the support she receives double?

It is time for a collective call to action. We must urge policymakers to allocate more resources to maternal mental health initiatives, with a specific focus on postpartum depression. Advocate for increased funding in public health budgets, research grants, and mental health infrastructure to ensure that no mother slips through the cracks of an underfunded system. Incorporating doulas into funding for pregnant women would have a remarkable influence on postpartum depression. Women who receive doula care have 57.5% lower odds of postpartum depression.

Birth is a beautiful part of life, so let us commit to supporting the well-being of the women who bring this new life into this world. Those who suffer from postpartum depression should not feel alone. This should be a shared challenge that we, as a society, want to commit to eradicating. We do this by destigmatizing the conversation, enhancing awareness, and expanding resources. We can change the narrative to where support, understanding, and compassion prevails, and no woman walks the path of postpartum depression alone.

Ijeoma Okons and Kala Gause are students in the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine and BCBSNC Schweitzer Fellows.