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In forum, postpartum depression survivors urge health care providers to look for symptoms in mothers

Richmond Times-Dispatch - 3/13/2017

Little Margaret finally slept through the night at three months old, on a family vacation in Florida.

Her mother? Not so much.

"I didn't sleep a wink," Kara Keefe said Tuesday.

In fact, Keefe, a Virginia Commonwealth University medical school student, hadn't slept in three weeks, and the prescription for antidepressants she had gotten from her gynecologist wasn't helping.

"In my head, I was thinking the only way that this could get better is for me to not be here," Keefe said. "There was a highway right beside the hotel, and I thought about walking onto the highway because there were trucks driving up and down all the time."

Keefe had known something wasn't quite right, but when she first started to contemplate taking her own life, she decided she needed help right away.

As soon as the family returned to Richmond, Keefe checked herself into an emergency room and took her first major step toward battling postpartum depression - the most common complication of pregnancy and childbirth, but one that experts say isn't discussed enough.

Keefe spoke last week at the Maternal Mental Health Symposium sponsored by Chippenham & Johnston-Willis Hospitals. About 40 people in the health care profession - all women - attended the forum.

"We've got a long way to go in educating society, medical professionals, individuals, new moms and everything," said David Mathews, a panelist who tearfully spoke about his daughter, Allison Goldstein, who committed suicide last year, four months after giving birth. "... We would like to do everything we can to make sure this does not happen to someone else."

Goldstein, who attended Chesterfield schools and later moved out of state, did not outwardly appear to be suffering from postpartum depression, said her sister, Mallory Hudson. She made only vague statements that, in retrospect, might have indicated something was amiss.

Adrienne Griffen, founder and executive director of Postpartum Support Virginia and a survivor of postpartum depression herself, said it's not uncommon for women to hide their raw and frightening feelings.

Health professionals of all stripes - not just the ones in mental health fields - need to be screening pregnant women and new moms for the illness, which impacts one in five new mothers, Griffen said.

Women who have recently given birth rarely care for themselves, but they desperately need to sleep, eat, exercise and take time off, Griffen said.

"There's only so long you can go without uninterrupted sleep," Griffen said.

Keefe knows about that firsthand and says she's lucky to be alive. She was worried she was approaching the point of experiencing a psychotic break.

Now, after months of treatment, support from family members and group therapy sessions, Keefe no longer needs medication to help her sleep, and she's been able to reduce her dosage of antidepressants.

"When I see people draw pictures of depression, what it looks like, I get it now, because it feels like it's tearing you apart," Keefe said. "That feeling is horrible, and it's really hard to describe to anyone who has never been there."

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