2019 Hero Maternal%20Depression Behavioral Health

A new paradigm of care to remove the old stigma of postpartum depression

At the very time society expects a woman to be at her most joyous—right after the birth of a child—postpartum depression can wreak havoc. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness and emptiness can leave a mother overwhelmed and unintentionally disengaged from her baby. The hormonal and lifestyle changes that surround pregnancy and childbirth can lead to anxiety and depression, and these feelings can persist to become something more than the “baby blues.” In extreme cases, new mothers may suffer from symptoms so severe they experience hallucinations or consider harming themselves or their baby.

An estimated 1 in 7 new mothers experience clinically significant depression or anxiety during or after pregnancy. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 60 percent of women with depressive symptoms do not receive a clinical diagnosis, and half of those with a diagnosis do not receive any treatment.

The Alexis Joy D’Achille Center for Perinatal Mental Health at West Penn Hospital shines a light on postpartum depression—and brings women into the supportive care environment they need by offering intensive therapy and encouraging mother-child bonding. Part of the Allegheny Health Network*, the center was funded in part by the Alexis Joy D’Achille Foundation, which raises awareness about postpartum depression and finds new ways to combat it.  The foundation was named for the wife of founder Steven D’Achille, who took her own life shortly after the birth of their daughter.

The center offers access to a full spectrum of family-focused care, all under one roof. In a home-like environment with comfortable chairs and natural light, mothers can be with their babies and have access to private areas for breastfeeding, breast pumps, bottle warmers and even free childcare for older siblings.

“We have created a novel therapeutic environment at this center that brings every available resource to women and their families in an effort to help them get well, bond and grow together,” Dr. Sarah Homitsky, the center’s medical director.

Besides providing counseling and medication, the center is focused on the mother-baby bond. Though there are fewer than 20 mother-baby facilities nationwide, Homitsky says the inclusion of the baby in care is vital to the successful treatment of the mother.

“The mother is more engaged when the child is involved, and treating the mother without including the baby leads to higher rates of relapse,” said Dr. Homitsky.

Allegheny Health Network is working hard to ensure any mother experiencing postpartum depression has access to the treatment needed to successfully care for themselves and their babies. They have instituted universal screening for both depression and bipolar disorder. Successful outcomes and streamlined screening may be helping to reduce the stigma of receiving care. When first opened, the center averaged four patients a week. Today, that number is 150, and the staff has grown from two to 14 to meet patients’ needs.

“By offering a setting where women can speak honestly,” Homitsky says, “we are normalizing the symptoms and showing mothers they are not alone.” 

*Allegheny Health Network (AHN) is a member of Highmark Health. 

Additional Resources:

  • Hear more as Dr. Homitsky discusses addressing postpartum depression and maternal health issues with Sen. Bill Frist on "A Second Opinion" podcast. 
  • The Alexis Joy D’Achille Center for Perinatal Mental Health was recently featured on the Today Show, see the segment.

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