As a therapist, when someone enters my office suffering from depression it typically doesn’t take very long to make an assessment about his or her condition. This fact becomes apparent either by the person’s report or by their presenting symptoms. But for many women who have just given birth, and who are entering the office of their primary care physician, OB, or pediatrician, the symptoms of depression can be completely missed.
Some pediatricians will admit to missing post-partum depression in their patient’s mother because their focus is primarily on the child. I have even heard some of these doctors say that they feel that unless there is a serious risk to the child the mother’s emotional state is beyond their purview. Some report feeling as though they are invading the mother’s privacy.
Pediatricians are not alone in their failure to recognize postnatal depression. Primary care docs and gynecologists are often so focused on their area of specialty that they ignore obvious signs or simply fail to ask the right questions.
Since approximately 1 in 5 Americans will suffer from some type of depression it is crucial that practitioners of all areas be trained to spot signs of depression since it is a major factor in the well being of not only the sufferer but the entire family.
Children of parents who suffer from depression are more likely to be plagued with the disorder themselves. They are also more prone to other problems such as poor academic performance, unstable relationships with peers, and more frequent visits to the emergency room. For many of these mothers a few simple questions asked by a concerned doctor could get them the treatment they need. In fact, most women suffering from postnatal depression report being relieved when someone inquires about their well-being. When the message is made clear that their mental health has a direct effect on their children, they are more willing to seek treatment.
Some doctors also report being afraid of sounding accusatory or blaming a parent for how their depression is negatively affecting their child. Obviously what these women need is support and resources and for many, unless these things are offered to them, they will not seek it out on their own.
Physicians are trained in medical school to recognize emotional distress but the practice of doing so may fall to the wayside as they settle into their chosen field. All doctors should be encouraged to go that extra mile when dealing with new mothers and patients in general. While it may feel out of their comfort zone to some, asking direct questions about how someone is feeling could go a long way to preventing depression from spreading throughout an entire family.
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