Each year, about 300,000 new mothers in the United States suffer from postpartum depression, experiencing low moods, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, insomnia, appetite disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and suicidal thoughts—and this is a low estimate, according to Michael O’Hara, professor and Starch Faculty Fellow in the department of psychological and brain sciences.
O’Hara leads the Veterans Administration (VA) MomMoodBooster program, an online intervention tool to help veteran mothers cope with postpartum depression. The project is funded by the VA Office of Rural Health, as well as the VA Office of Women’s Health Services. So far, about 40 women have been through the program, with positive results.
“Women in rural areas often don’t seek out or have access to mental health care,” O’Hara said. “Reaching out in particular to rural veteran women seemed to me like it was just something important to do.”
The VA is particularly interested in women’s healthcare, and O’Hara and his team are able to contact veteran mothers directly because of the accessibility of their medical records. O’Hara said it seems possible, given the combat experience of many veteran women, that they may be more at risk for depression, though that has not been quantified.
“I was in the navy for four-and-a-half years, and it’s not an easy life,” O’Hara said. “These are women who have served our country, and we have a way of contacting them. You put that together, and it’s sort of a winning combination.”
Women enrolled in the program participate in six sessions over a six-week period which target managing mood, increasing pleasant activities, managing negative thoughts, increasing positive thoughts, and planning for the future. Phone coaches also call to check in with the women, tracking progress, answering questions, and providing encouragement.
Treating postpartum depression is important not only for the mothers but also for the well-being of their children. A depressed mother often pays less attention to the baby’s cues, either interacting less and neglecting the child or working so hard to interact that the baby becomes overwhelmed, leading to developmental problems.
The self-focus caused by depression can be harmful to children in other ways as well. When mothers choose whether to make a meal or drive to a fast food restaurant, depression can influence them to make the easier choice.
“Any time a parent is distracted by mental health concerns, this can lead to problems with the children,” O’Hara said. “We know that inconsistent parenting often makes it harder for children to internalize societal rules, a situation which often sets the stage for behavior problems. Having parents that are emotionally stable is quite a benefit to the child.”
For some women, postpartum depression represents a recurrence of depression at a stressful time in their lives. For others, it stems from issues surrounding the marriage, finances, or simply the challenge of caring for an infant. Biologically, there is increasing evidence that pregnancy hormones may the set the stage for low mood, which, when combined with environmental factors, may cause postpartum depression.
“The most dominant things I see are poor social support systems and conflict with the partner,” O’Hara said.
The program will continue at least through the end of September next year, when the VA will determine whether to continue its funding. O’Hara said that he hopes that the VA will continue to fund this important outreach to postpartum depressed women veterans.