Mothers often experience feelings of stress, depression & anxiety when pregnant and/or when approaching delivery. Increased awareness regarding the stresses of childbirth have acknowledged mothers are experiencing a more dramatic mental health concern—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition varies in severity from mild to those who become disabled and endure long-term effects. PTSD has traditionally been a condition seen among those in military combat. Common problems include “flashbacks”, feelings of terror, and desperation.
Sharon Dekel, a Harvard psychologist, says up to 6% of mothers may experience PTSD after childbirth, typically in response to dangerous injuries or trauma. For example, those who undergo emergency hysterectomies are nearly three times more likely to develop PTSD. Problems often surface when the baby suffers a birth-related injury, such as in cases of medical malpractice stemming from provider negligence.
Humans may develop mental health problems after experiencing traumatic events. There were written accounts back in the Civil War where those who fought were known to have post-war psychological conditions such as sadness, inability to sleep, & anxiety. Some of the terms used to describe the condition included “shell shock” or “military fatigue syndrome”. Those who experience the sudden death of a loved one, a severe fire, or natural disaster, may develop the condition. In most cases, the negative feelings subside over time; however, those with PTSD may find the feelings persist for months or years.
The American Psychiatric Association cites common symptoms as follows:
- “Reliving” the event through thoughts or flashbacks
- Continually avoiding remembrances or reminders of the event
- Feeling irritable or angry
- Inability to sleep
- Detaching or distancing oneself
- Feelings of pending doom or future misfortune
A 36-year-old mother and middle school teacher in Manhasset, NY underwent two surgical procedures and needed several pints of blood following an emergency C-section. She endured nightmares where she was unable to breathe or was tied down and found herself crying for nearly a month. She developed a fear of being alone with her baby that required treatment. Heather Lavender, a nurse at a Baltimore hospital, had several miscarriages and lost an 18-week old baby. She has yet to be able to return to work as she struggles with PTSD.
The rise in maternal morbidity may result from many factors. There is an overall decline in the health of women who become pregnant and many receive low-quality maternity care. Women are having children at older ages; roughly 30% of first-time mothers are over 30. Women are also weighing more and have higher rates of conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Many in rural or lower-income areas have substance abuse problems and poor medical coverage.
About 50% of U.S. births are funded by Medicaid, which treats mothers for related conditions until approximately two-months after delivery. Unfortunately, PTSD may not begin for several months, and may last for an extended period. Women with prior mental health concerns are also more prone to PTSD.