“We need both medicine and mothers to create the future of maternal mental health.” – Walker Karrraa, PhD
It’s no secret that I’m a survivor of postpartum depression. It’s something I talk about a lot, and it informs everything I do with FFF. There is an obvious correlation between breastfeeding and postpartum mental health; whether this connection is positive or negative is a highly subjective, personal, individual matter. I see so many blanket statements, based on problematic data collection, and leaps of logic when it comes to this topic. No one ever stops to listen to the mothers who don’t fit their particular thesis. And while the topic of maternal mental health has slowly been gaining proper attention in both the media and research communities, as usual, the most important voices have been ignored: the voices of the mothers who have lived through PPD, and lived to tell the tale.
Thanks to Walker Karraa, PhD, these voices are now being heard. In her new book, Transformed by Postpartum Depression (Praeclarus Press, 2014) she reports on her own analysis and research as well as that of other pioneers/thought leaders in the maternal mental health field. But throughout, she allows the words of her subjects tell the story. And it’s an important story – one that not only highlights Karraa’s thesis, that PPD can be both traumatic and transformative, but also details how we are failing mothers at every turn. This is something that’s been discussed, even here on this blog, but Karraa’s delivery of the information is profoundly moving and startling because it is so specific, personal, and honest.
Using her interviews with 20 different women, all of whom survived moderate to severe PPD, Karraa examines the experience of postpartum depression. But this isn’t some clinical, cold volume that treats its subjects like research – the care and admiration Karraa has for her subjects is clear throughout the text. It’s a unique book; one that I believe will be just as helpful to moms as it is to mental health professionals and academics.
I think the FFF Friday series is powerful for many reasons, but the one that feels most vital to me is this: for every specific, personal story I share, there are hundreds of moms out there who see themselves in the words. These experiences are individual, but also collective, and sharing them helps both the writer (catharsis) and the reader (relief/camaradarie/normalization). Karraa’s book serves this purpose for the postpartum depression community. That would be enough – but she goes a step farther, pondering complex questions about how we approach the pathology of depression, and even analyzing her own reactions to her research. The result is something entirely unique, engaging, and important.
One section that deserves national attention – like, yesterday – is Karraa’s chapter on the failure of care providers to help these women. Her interviewees report harrowing tales of begging for help, only to be cruelly dismissed, ignored, or ridiculed. Nearly all reported a complete lack of forewarning that PPD was even a possibility, in prenatal classes and OB/GYN appointments – even when they had past histories of mental illness. Lactation consultants failed to see what breastfeeding was doing to a mother’s mental health; pediatricians told mothers their suicidal thoughts were “normal”; therapists refused to help or refer to others who could. These mothers were forced to take matters into their own hands, as Karraa describes:
As I analyzed this data, images of the walking wounded came to mind – as if these women were hemorrhaging – in public – and no one noticed… To walk through daily life dying and being ignored by care providers, and invisible to support systems was crazy-making and cruel. There was almost a punitive sense of the experience of care-provider failure – an additional layer of humiliation, indignity, and negligence…women got pragmatic; if their providers were not going to fix the problem, they would do it themselves.”
Of course, this could be viewed as a silver lining, in the American, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps sort of way. But that is not what Karraa is advocating. It’s inspiring to see how these women overcame adversity, but infuriating that they had to do it alone. I hope that this book will act as the missing link – a close-up on the face of postpartum depression, a healing volume for those who have been through this particular battle, and a call to action for our society to make immediate changes in how we approach postpartum mental health.