Should all new mothers be screened for depression? Yes!

Some 22% of new mothers experience postpartum depression. That’s a stunningly high number, large enough that you have to wonder why all women aren’t screened for this problem post-delivery. After all, depression doesn’t “just” devastate the new mother–but puts her newborn at risk for developmental delays and a host of cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems down the road. And then there’s the destructive impact on her other children–and her partner. Right now, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says no to recommending universal screening, claiming there’s not enough evidence to support it. But researchers of a massive, new study on postpartum depression disagree–and they are right. Their work underlines how critical it is to assess all new moms (not just those considered at risk). When they screened 10,000 women who gave birth at a single hospital in Pittsburgh they found that one in seven had depression symptoms 4-6 weeks after the birth. Of these women:

  • 19% were having thoughts of self-harm. In fact, University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Dorothy Sit told NPR that “some patients with very severe symptoms had made the decision to take their lives.” (They received immediate intervention.) “Most of these women would not have been screened and therefore would not have been identified as seriously at risk,” said the study’s lead researcher, Katherine L. Wisner, MD, now at Northwestern University.
  • Almost two-thirds also suffered from an anxiety disorder.
  • 73% only experienced depression symptoms after becoming pregnant or giving birth.
  • 23% actually had bi-polar disorders (which require different treatment measures than “standard” depression).

“In the U.S., the vast majority of postpartum women with depression are not identified or treated even though they are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders,” said Wisner. “It’s a huge public health problem.”

While experts continue to duke it out, there’s no reason for new mothers to suffer. There are highly effective treatments for depression. The Catch-22 is that depression can blanket a new mother in despair, hopelessness and self-blame that prevent her from seeking help. If you think you or a loved one might fit this description you can access the same simple screening test (called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale) that the Pittsburgh researchers used. If a new mom scores high, or is otherwise concerned about her mood, she should seek help from a health practitioner. She can also find online support through postpartum.net (which also offers resources for Dads.)