With three children at home already, Lisa Condie Barlow headed to the hospital in 2008 to give birth to her twin boys. But she says this time around, things were different. The Utah mom suffered from postpartum depression and OCD following the birth of her twins. "I felt so inadequate, embarrassed, and ungrateful", she said. "How could I be struggling, when so many of my friends and family were struggling with infertility?" She hid her pain from everyone, except for her doctor, who prescribed medication. But, Condie Barlow says she didn't know where to find a therapist, and was too embarrassed to ask for recommendations. Instead, she suffered.
Advocates say it's a common theme, a mother expecting to be blissfully happy following the birth of their child, but then finding themselves isolated in the stigma of suffering from a disease they don't understand. They say Utah has come a long way, raising awareness for postpartum mental health and increasing screening for new mothers. The state has also developed a referral and resource network for parents and caregivers seeking help for a number of issues, including depression, anxiety, infertility, miscarriage, birth trauma. "Speaking to the de-stigmatization of this issue has been breathtaking", says Rep. Jen Dailey Provost. "Women throughout our country have borne the burden of this, and have had to suffer for far too long."
Governor Spencer Cox recently declared February as Utah Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, writing in the declaration that the social isolation and increased fears from the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened an already difficult time for new mothers. His wife speaking at the announcement says she too struggled when she had her third child, sharing "frankly, I didn't know what it was. We didn't have the language for it." Moving forward, Utah First Lady Abby Cox says "we need to recognize it for what it is and help people in our state who are suffering."
There's still work to be done. A new study from the Utah Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System showed 43% of Utah residents with a recent live birth were affected by depression and anxiety. That same report found only 44% of participants had been screened before pregnancy.
One of those continuing to push for change is Megan Johnson, the co-founder of the Emily Effect, honoring her late sister Emily Cook Dyches. Emily lost her battle to postpartum anxiety in 2016, and Megan says so many moms reached out to her afterwards to say they saw Emily's story, and got help themselves. "Five years ago these issues were not discussed in our homes", Johnson says. "Five years ago we struggled to find Emily the right resources to address her needs." Her goal is to end the stigma, effect change, and ultimately, create an inpatient facility for struggling moms to get nurturing treatment after birth.
Survivor Evi Hayhurst-Figgat says she sees the changes, and they are helping. Following her first pregnancy five years ago she experienced such depression, anxiety, and psychosis that she delayed having a second child until she and her husband felt prepared to face it again. In 2019 she welcomed her second child, and things went well, until the pandemic hit. Her daughter was hospitalized right around the same time and "things started to spiral for me, but I was prepared this time", says Hayhurst-Figgat. Within a week of noticing symptoms she was in a psychiatrist office. "Instead of suffering quietly for months i was able to feel empowered, and I can't thank this state and resources enough for helping me feel that success", says Hayhurst-Figgat.
A nation-wide Maternal Mental Health Month is coming up in May. Utah advocates say they hope other states will follow their initiative to focus local efforts on helping mothers, and bring more awareness to postpartum health issues and resources. "We may not be able to stop Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders from happening", says Hayhurst-Figgat. "But, we may be able to greatly reduce the harmful effects they have on families through consistent support and networking tools."
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.