By Lauren Wanko
“I was blindsided by depression. I had no idea it even existed because no one talked about it,” said Mary Jo Codey.
It happened 30 years ago. Former First Lady Mary Jo Codey enjoyed her first pregnancy. She was ready to welcome the new addition — her baby boy.
“And then when he was born and they asked me if I wanted to hold him, I said no, that I was tired. That was the beginning of this terrible experience of postpartum depression,” she said.
The state Department of Health indicates statewide between 11,000 and 16,000 women may suffer from postpartum depression each year. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended screening for depression in the general adult population, including pregnant and postpartum women. Meridian Behavioral Health Services‘ Dr. Ramon Solhkhah says when it comes to screening peripartum depression — which occurs during pregnancy and in the months after — has often been overlooked within the medical community.
“Part of the problem has been that unfortunately you’re not actually capturing most of the women with depression in those first couple of days after the delivery, so the expansion of this screening recommendation is to actually be screening earlier in pregnancy and later in postpartum period I think is really important,” the doctor said.
Dr. Solkhah says about 8 to 10 percent of the general population is at risk of developing depression in their lifetime. For pregnant women, rates are more than double — up to 25 percent. There could be lots of reasons for that including genetic risk factors, hormonal changes and stress of the pregnancy.
Mary Jo went off her medication to get pregnant a second time.
“And the longer I was off it, the deeper the depression came. It came back so I had electric shock therapy 11 times when I was pregnant with Christopher on my ninth month. It was the only way they could keep me from suicide. It was awful,” she said.
She suffered for a total of about three years. Initially her doctors couldn’t pinpoint the issue.
“I kept thinking, if you don’t know what’s wrong it’s my fault. Then I thought to myself when I finally realized that it wasn’t my fault, I decided I didn’t want another woman to go through this horrific experience. I think when a first lady has postpartum depression people stop and listen,” she said.
In 2006, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to enact a law that requires new mothers be screened for postpartum depression symptoms before being discharged from the hospital and at the first few postnatal check-up visits. The state Department of Health also operates a postpartum depression hotline, which has received more than 13,000 calls since 2005. Of those callers, more than 6,000 have been referred to receive a phone assessment from Rutgers University Behavioral Health Center clinical staff.
What does Mary Jo want the message to be?
“I want the message to be speak up if you’re down, if you feel down ask for help. The problem is there’s not a lot of places to go for help,” she said.
“The ultimate problem is there just aren’t enough medical health providers,” Dr. Solhkhah said.
Mary Jo wants to see more money set aside for health care professionals who treat women with postpartum depression.
“That’s my hope, that’s my dream, that they’ll be people that are going to be there to hold these women up and support them,” she said.
To get help with postpartum depression from the New Jersey Department of Health:
Hotline number: 1-800-328-3838
Postpartum webpage: Speak Up When You’re Down. The webpage includes answers to frequently asked questions in English, Spanish and Creole, as well as other resources.
Monmouth Medical Center has the Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder Program available for women.