A Wall of Silence: When Mom Has Depression

When a mother is depressed, her children suffer too -- and more deeply than previously thought. It's key to recognize the symptoms and take steps to find a solution. Meet moms who spoke up, sought help, and overcame a condition that stood between their family and happiness.
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When Trina Mallett's third child, Hailee, was born, nothing went the way Mallett had planned. Unlike her older siblings, Hailee had colic, so for the first 12 weeks she cried nonstop from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Nothing would soothe her, including being fed. In fact, nursing was a disaster. "She just wouldn't latch on properly or take a bottle, so I could never leave her with anyone," recalls Mallett, a stay-at-home mom in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Very soon, Mallett grew as weepy as her baby. Life became a total daze -- she couldn't sleep, eat, or focus on anything. Her husband tried to be supportive, but he traveled frequently for work and didn't fully understand how bad things had become.

Mallett struggled in silence, thinking she was just going through a hard time. Then, after about a year, the panic attacks started. Every morning she'd wake at 5 a.m. and promptly throw up, and she grew so paralyzed with fear that she couldn't even go to the grocery store without another adult. One day her two older children, then 3 and 11, asked to go to the playground, and Mallett realized that a minor outing like this had become insurmountable. "I had to tell them we couldn't go because Mommy wasn't feeling well," Mallett recalls. "I felt like such a failure. Why couldn't I handle this?"

Hailee was almost 3 years old when Mallett finally sought help, at her mother's urging. She described her problems to her ob-gyn, who immediately suspected she was depressed. "I thought, 'What do I have to be depressed about?' I'd always been a happy person," Mallett recalls. "I had no idea that my problem could be an actual illness until my doctor explained it to me." Like many depressed moms, Mallett thought that if she could just soldier on, she'd overcome her troubles on her own.

This isn't surprising to Diana Lynn Barnes, Psy.D., a psychotherapist and founder of The Center for Postpartum Health, in Los Angeles, who herself was hospitalized for postpartum depression (PPD) after the birth of her second child. Our society portrays motherhood as a time of ultimate fulfillment, which promotes unrealistic expectations in the minds of new moms, she explains. "As a result, women go for long periods of time without treatment because they feel unbearable guilt. They also worry that they'll be considered weak," says Dr. Barnes. In fact, half of Americans who suffer from clinical depression don't receive any treatment, according to a survey by researchers at UCLA and at Wayne State University, in Detroit. But going without help only makes things worse.

"Unrecognized and untreated depression among parents is a potent risk factor for children," says William R. Beardslee, M.D., chairman emeritus of the department of psychiatry at Children's Hospital Boston and author of When a Parent Is Depressed. To begin with, depression interferes with a mother's ability to properly bond with her children. Studies from the National Institute of Mental Health now show that infants of depressed moms get less interaction, fuss and cry more often, and show higher levels of physiological stress than do babies of mothers who don't have the condition. Some studies even hint at a connection between a mom's depression and a child's physical health. Recent research from Johns Hopkins Children's Center found that children with asthma whose mothers showed signs of depression experienced more frequent asthma symptoms. "Fortunately," says Dr. Beardslee, "many treatments for depression have been proven to work."

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