Postpartum depression often overlooked or misdiagnosed in new moms

Jo Bloomfield plays a game called Pie Face with her daughter, 6-year-old Charlotte. Bloomfield had postpartum depression after Charlotte's birth.
Jo Bloomfield plays a game called Pie Face with her daughter, 6-year-old Charlotte. Bloomfield had postpartum depression after Charlotte's birth.
Rebecca Plevin/KPCC

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After Jo Bloomfield gave birth to her first child, she recalls worrying almost constantly about whether her baby was eating enough or breathing at night. She says those thoughts morphed into obsessions that made it impossible for her to sleep well. 

"I would lie in bed and just feel my heart beating, and just this rush of adrenaline, every second," says Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach.

Her doctor said it was insomnia and prescribed sleeping pills. But they didn't help.

And then, she says, she started to feel suicidal.

"I went to my pediatrician, sobbing; my obstetrician, sobbing," Bloomfield says. "Neither of them said anything."

Bloomfield was later diagnosed with postpartum depression. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in ten women experience symptoms of it within a year after giving birth. But a lot of women and their doctors simply don't catch it, experts say. 

Earlier this year,  the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for the first time recommended depression screening for all pregnant and postpartum women as part of its screening guidelines for all adults. Mental health experts applaud the decision and say they hope it will help break down some of the barriers that still prevent women like Bloomfield from getting help for depression during and after pregnancy.

'Everything is going to be awful'

Better depression screening would likely have allowed Jeanne Herring to get help in a timely manner.

About three months after she gave birth to her second child, Herring became wracked with anxiety. She recalls that her son, Colin, who was about two years old at the time, seemed a bit lethargic.

"I remember sitting on the couch and being like, 'Oh no, he has leukemia!'" she says.

Herring rushed Colin to the doctor. His diagnosis: That everything was fine with her son; that mom needed some rest and self care. 

"Basically, he recommended that I sort of go home, have a glass of wine, relax," she says. "He was seeing in me that I was too worried about this."

But then Herring began feeling anxious about her daughter.  She was convinced, she says, that Baby Amy had autism, even though she now realizes her daughter had no symptoms of that condition. The thoughts kept her awake at night and affected her ability to eat and keep on weight.

Like Herring, many women with postpartum depression experience high levels of anxiety, says Claremont psychologist Dr. Katayune Kaeni.  And that's one key reason the condition often goes undiagnosed, she says.

"If it's not registering as depression and what's commonly known as depression, then it's often overlooked," Kaeni says.

'I was a different person'

Herring eventually got therapy for postpartum depression, which included anti-depressant medications she began taking after she finished breast-feeding her daughter. 

Jo Bloomfield, too, was prescribed anti-depressant medications. She says the meds and the passage of time brought relief. But a subsequent pregnancy triggered a new round of depression and fear. 

"I had survived this a first time, but I didn't know if I could possibly do this a second time," she says.

Bloomfield sought help from a perinatal therapist who provided counseling and a perinatal psychiatrist, who put her back on a low dose of medication. She also surrounded herself with the support of her family, friends and husband, who took six weeks of paternity leave to help her get through the depression.

She believes all of that, in combination, lifted her out of depression for good.

"It was kind of like I was a different person," says Bloomfield. "It was incredible."

Bloomfield has since parlayed her first-hand experience with postpartum depression into a job with the Maternal Mental Health Now, an organization that works to get pregnant women and new moms screened for postpartum depression and reduce the stigma surrounding the condition.

Bloomfield says she hopes that sharing her own story will help other women like her get the help they need.

"Now I tell women that if they are experiencing anything, there are so many people out there that are experts in this, and that you can talk to, and that can really help treat this, before it gets out of control like it did in my case," she says.