FOR MOST women, giving birth triggers joyful and overwhelming emotions. But for a significant number of new mothers it also causes strong and persistent feelings of anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness — clear signs of postpartum depression. Yet the maternal disorder often goes undiagnosed, or simply dismissed as “baby blues.” State Representative Ellen Story of Amherst has introduced bill after bill for the past six years to mandate postpartum depression screening in the state. On Tuesday night, the restitution of a $200,000 pilot program to screen for postpartum depression in certain communities amounted to a victory — and represents a step in the right direction in support of maternal mental health.
The pilot program, which began in early 2014 and whose budget was cut last year by Governor Deval Patrick, offered free postpartum depression screenings in four health centers in Jamaica Plain, Lynn, Holyoke, and Worcester. More than 2,000 women, mostly low income, have taken advantage of the test administered in form of a questionnaire. About 12 percent of the mothers screened showed signs of mild to severe depression. During this week’s deliberations in the state House of Representatives, legislators passed a budget that fully restored the postpartum depression screening pilot program.
Establishing postpartum depression as a legitimate public health issue has proven to be difficult, despite its prevalence: Approximately 1 in 7 mothers suffer from PPD after birth. But many doctors, in general, oppose the screening tool because there is no consensus on what happens after the test shows that a patient is depressed. The mother can be referred to a specialist, but there is no guarantee she will follow up. And that’s why the pilot program reestablished by the House works. It creates a safety net of health advocates around the mother, by offering prenatal and post-birth care, as well as mental health services, under one roof.
“It’s so much good for such short money,” said Story, adding that she is confident the funding will pass the Senate. “I just can’t imagine that the governor would veto it.”
Postpartum depression is often treatable with behavioral therapy and, in the most severe cases, with antidepressants. Early detection can prevent further mental health issues in the mother that would seriously affect the baby’s health and development.
Story also introduced a related postpartum depression bill in January that would require all MassHealth patients who have just given birth to get screened for PPD, a policy that would cost the state approximately $100,000. But for now — and when the proposed budget reaches them — both the Senate and Governor Baker should commit to supporting maternal mental health and give the final stamp of approval to guarantee the pilot program’s continuation.