This guest post was written by Katherine Stone, founder of Postpartum Progress, a site dedicated to raising awareness, fighting stigma and providing peer support and programming to women with maternal mental illness.
These were the words of New York Times bestselling author and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson yesterday, in response to the news that our government has finally recommended that moms should definitely be screened for postpartum depression. When I saw them I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I checked her Facebook page: 600,000 followers. I checked her Twitter account: 300,000 followers. Then I became nearly hysterical thinking of the influence she has on so many and how her words would serve to stigmatize and shame. I felt the collective gut punch of about a million women in the U.S. who’ve had PPD in the last year or have it right now. I felt like I was watching the maternal mental health movement getting dragged backward. Watching women be told, “just try harder.” It’s on you, ladies! Get out that yoga mat and downward dog the PPD right out of you.
When you have the kind of following Marianne has you have power. People look to you for guidance. They trust what you have to say, and they don’t even ask if you have the knowledge and expertise to say it. And here she was saying that the reason healthcare providers are now being urged to screen all moms is because of money. Not because one in seven women will get PPD or a related illness. Not because suicide is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality, more so than postpartum hemorrhage. Not because the vast majority of women who have maternal mental illness never get identified or treated. Not because those women’s children will now have a higher likelihood of cognitive development problems, poor performance in school, and future substance abuse and psychiatric problems. Just the almighty dollar.
Does Marianne know that the members of the task force making this decision had no conflict of interest? Does she know that most antidepressants are actually off patent now and so it’s the generics that are widely sold? Generics that Big Pharma gets zero money from? How many women she has talked down off the ledge, like I have, who have spent more than a year – sometimes YEARS -- suffering severe symptoms of PPD or anxiety and who have gotten so sick they’re now a shell of their former selves? And the reason it’s gotten this bad is because they believed they needed to pray harder, or eat organically, or exercise? I remember one woman telling me that she was now exercising 3 straight hours a day but she still wasn’t getting better and she just couldn’t understand why. These are people who have so bought into the idea that they should be able to handle mental illness on their own that they’ve actually gotten sick enough that it is likely the only thing that will save them at this point is … wait for it … medication.
In a separate Facebook comment, Marianne continued: “Postpartum depression is often a result of a woman’s heartbreak over having to go back to work sooner than her body, mind and heart are ready to. She knows in her gut that her baby needs her home longer, and she needs to be with the baby longer.”
Postpartum depression is actually a result of a number of things. Genetics for one. Is there mental illness in your family, or have you ever experienced an episode of depression or anxiety in the past? Then you have a higher likelihood of getting PPD. Another big risk factor is poverty. One in four low-income, underserved women get PPD. They have major financial stresses, food insecurity, a potential history of trauma or violence … Should we be sending them all to meditation class? How exactly are they supposed to get good nutrition? And what about all the stay-at-home moms who get PPD, Marianne? They have no heartbreak over going back to work sooner and yet they’re still ill.
As you might imagine, many women who have had postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, postpartum psychosis and depression and anxiety started to respond (check out Postpartum Progress’ hashtag #meditateonthis to see what they said). They started to tell her why she was wrong, and why her uninformed words could harm. Her response? “I’m very sorry to see how many American women are acquiescing so easily to Big Pharma’s propaganda on this one, but what I believe is what I believe.”
I think you can believe that antidepressants are often prescribed unnecessarily (as I do, by the way), and believe that therapy and other interventions are often the way to go, AND believe that some women with moderate to severe symptoms will benefit from medication. Those beliefs are not mutually exclusive. You can be mad at some of the untoward marketing practices of Big Pharma but also be grateful that a medication saved your life. You can acknowledge that sometimes people who think they have a mental illness don’t, but are instead having a rough go of it for a short period, but that others have a real illness that needs professional treatment. We stipulate that our system is far from perfect, and yet we still need to do whatever we can to help new families get a stronger start.
Postpartum depression is not normal, Marianne. It’s common, but not normal. It’s not normal to be completely unable to sleep when the baby sleeps. It’s not normal to suddenly have rages where you break things when you’ve never once been an angry person. It’s not normal to have gruesome, intrusive thoughts where you imagine the worst possible things happening to your baby by your own hand. To have so much anxiety you can’t leave the house. Or to believe with all of your heart that your beautiful and beloved new family would be better off without you.
Please reconsider your words, Marianne. Please come at this from a place of abundance and acknowledge that there may be more than one right answer. Because what matters more than anything is that moms can get healthy and get back to the important job of motherhood. That is paramount.