Treatment for Postpartum Depression Overview
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), postpartum depression (PPD) is a type of mood disorder that can cause depression and other side effects in women. PPD can appear anytime within the first year after giving birth but typically within the first few weeks.
Having a new baby can be challenging enough for new parents, but dealing with PPD also adds an additional hurdle to overcome.
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression to Treat
Also known as perinatal depression or postnatal depression, about 1 in 8 new mothers experience some level of postpartum depression (PPD) during the first year after giving birth.
Some side effects of PPD include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Mood swings
- Intense feelings of sadness, anger, or worthlessness
- Depression and suicidal thoughts
Causes of Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression can have multiple causes and is often connected to the sudden hormonal changes a woman experiences just after giving birth. Hormone levels—specifically estrogen and progesterone—drop significantly after giving birth, which can trigger PPD in some women.
Increased risk factors for developing postpartum depression include:
- Family history of depression
- Pre-existing mental disorders (e.g., Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, etc.)
- Traumatic birth experiences
- Occurrence of PPD with previous birth(s)
- Stressful life events (e.g., employment loss, family death, etc.)
How Doctors Treat Postpartum Depression
If you or a loved one suspect you’re experiencing signs of postpartum depression, speak to your doctor or a healthcare provider specializing in women’s health and pediatrics. Your doctor will often provide a depression screening or a questionnaire to assess your condition and how to meet your needs. They may also perform a blood test to eliminate other conditions, such as thyroid problems.
Your doctor will evaluate the following:
- The severity of your condition
- Your medical history and background (including pre-existing mental illness)
- Other individual needs
Postpartum depression treatments generally include therapy with a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. Another standard treatment method used in conjunction with therapy is prescription medications like antidepressants.
Postpartum depression recovery should also include healthy lifestyle practices.
Mothers affected by PPD can take care of themselves by:
- Getting enough rest
- Staying hydrated
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Avoiding alcohol
- Staying physically active through activities like walking or swimming
Your doctor will also likely recommend a follow-up appointment after about six months. While extremely rare, if postpartum psychosis is present (hallucinations, extreme paranoia), your doctor may recommend Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) at the beginning of treatment.
Postpartum Depression Therapy
Because postpartum depression is a mental health condition, it can be treated through psychotherapy. PPD treatment includes talk therapy with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional.
Talking about their feelings in a safe environment can be incredibly helpful for women who feel isolated, anxious, and scared. Mental health professionals use therapy to help women find ways to understand and cope with their emotions. Therapy also allows mothers to solve problems and set realistic goals as they work to manage their postpartum depression.
Two common types of psychotherapy are referred to as talk therapy. These include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). Social support, such as group therapy or support groups, can also provide additional help during postpartum. Depending on the person and their unique needs, one type of therapy may be more beneficial than the other.
Other forms of therapy can involve the spouse or other family members to promote a holistic approach to healing. Depending on the situation, relationship therapy for spouses may be important in recovering from postpartum depression.
In general, therapy can help women develop a more positive way of acknowledging, addressing, and recovering from postpartum depression.
Treating Postpartum Depression With Medication
Another vital component of well-rounded postpartum depression treatment is prescription medications, such as Brexanolone, recommended by a doctor or psychiatrist.
The choice of medication will depend on:
- The severity of the condition
- Whether or not the mother is breastfeeding
- The medical history of the woman
- Other types of drugs the mother may be taking
Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed type of medication for postpartum depression. Antidepressants elevate and stabilize the mood, preventing postpartum depression symptoms such as mood swings, sadness, and irritability. There are several classifications of antidepressants, each with a different chemical effect on the brain.
Other postpartum depression medications may be prescribed if the condition is more severe. Medication prescriptions are common for cases of postpartum anxiety, postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, and postpartum psychosis. These medications include anti-psychotic drugs that alter brain chemicals, changing behaviors, moods, and emotions.
Many prescription medications are safe to use while breastfeeding, as studies indicate they do not impact the mother’s breast milk.
Treating Postpartum Depression with Antidepressants (SSRI)
Antidepressants are the most common psychiatry medications prescribed to women suffering from postpartum depression. Antidepressants work to balance a person’s neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that affect mood and emotions.
When antidepressants are taken for clinical purposes, the results include:
- Improved sleep
- Reduced mood swings
- Improved appetite
- Other general improvements in well-being
It generally takes at least four weeks for antidepressants to take full effect. However, some people may feel better much sooner.
Several types of antidepressants are prescribed based on various factors. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are drugs that specifically improve serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is one type of neurotransmitter responsible for emotions and mood. SSRIs block the reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, making it more readily available to the brain. Serotonin helps to elevate mood and reduce general symptoms of postpartum depression.
Other types of antidepressants include Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs). This type improves levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter.
Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs) and Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) are two other antidepressant medications.
Regardless of the type of antidepressant, women must take them as instructed at the same time each day. Doing so improves their effectiveness in reducing postpartum depression symptoms.
Postpartum Depression Treatment to Recovery
Full recovery from postpartum depression is possible. Each woman experiences this disorder in different ways. However, the condition generally lasts six months. With therapy, medication, and healthy lifestyle choices, women can recover from postpartum depression. Recovery allows mothers to live happy and healthy lives with their children and families.
Women facing postpartum depression must understand that their recovery involves ups and downs and moving through various stages. Support from family, friends, and other women who have experienced PPD can add to a healthy recovery process.
Doctors Who Treat Postpartum Depression
Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist
Generally, two types of mental health professionals can treat postpartum depression: psychologists and psychiatrists. Both professions work to treat mental conditions and improve emotional well-being. However, they have distinct differences in educational background, scope of practice, and approach to therapy.
Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists do not attend medical school. Instead, they obtain a doctoral degree through a research-based education studying human behavior. Psychologists use different psychological testing tools focusing on the patient’s mind and emotions.
A psychologist observes and intervenes in patient behaviors. Therefore, psychologists will pay close attention to their patient’s sleeping, eating, and exercising patterns. They use these observations to determine how a patient’s behaviors are causing or solving the emotional suffering.
While psychiatrists also focus on improving their patient’s mental and emotional well-being, they have a different approach to treatment. Psychiatrists have attended medical school, focusing on the biological and neurological causes of postpartum depression and other mental conditions.
Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists can prescribe medications like antidepressants to help correct chemical deficiencies and imbalances that cause PPD. Because of the scientific approach to treatment, psychiatrists will also look to rule out other conditions that cause symptoms similar to postpartum depression, such as malnutrition or a thyroid disorder.
While psychologists and psychiatrists take different approaches to therapy, they both provide valuable treatment options to deliver a well-rounded and holistic approach to postpartum depression recovery.