Last night’s episode of the ABC television show “Private Practice” was promoted, both to the public and to the members of Postpartum Support International, as one about postpartum depression, but — surprise, surprise — it immediately devolved into a show about postpartum psychosis and a mom attempting to kill her child by holding her down under the water in the bathtub.
Every time the media, whether entertainment or news, chooses to cover perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, the portrayal is always of some out-of-control woman committing or attempting to commit infanticide. They NEVER represent the fact that 99.99% of women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (including PPD and psychosis) NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER do anything to harm a hair on their infants’ heads. That all of them are very good and loving mothers who simply have an illness that requires treatment. They never represent the fact that there is so much more to these illnesses and that postpartum depression is very common and treatable. They make it seem like every mom who does have postpartum psychosis ends up killing their child.
In the name of getting more viewers for “Private Practice,” ABC and the shows producers have irresponsibly represented perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and potentially traumatized HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of new mothers. Just ask yourself how many husbands, family members and friends who saw the show are looking at the new moms around them today wondering whether they’re capable of murder? Just ask yourself how many moms are not going to reach out for treatment because they now think their babies will be taken away as the character’s was?
There were so many things wrong with the storyline that I don’t know where to begin. The symptoms the mother presented could have been postpartum depression (feeling overwhelmed, having problems sleeping), postpartum anxiety (constant worries about the baby) or psychosis (mania, hearing her baby crying — which at first indication seemed like she was hallucinating but then the mom actually finds the baby in the lobby and it IS crying). Every mom who saw the show with any of these symptoms potentially now sees herself as psychotic, which is most likely not the case. And even if she is psychotic, she can get treatment and recover and move on. . Violet, the therapist on the show played by Amy Brenneman, may be one of the worst ever to practice therapy on the planet. She displays very little knowledge of these illnesses and how to treat them in both her words and deeds, and she shows more concern for herself than the client. She lets her own personal problems completely interfere with the treatment of her patient. Her line “She could snap her neck” almost gave me a complete heart attack. I can’t share with you the string of swear words I used at that utterance. As one of my son’s storybooks says: I’m 10 X 10 furious, which is 100% furious.
As the PR Chair for Postpartum Support International, it was my responsibility to write the text of ABC’s public service announcement. I happily did so because I was excited about the opportunity to educate millions of people, and I wrote it about postpartum depression because that is the direction I was given. Had I been given more truthful information up front, I could have written something completely different and more appropriate to the episode. Since I didn’t, the PSA just continues to blur the lines between postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis as if they are one in the same.
To make things worse, despite Postpartum Support International being informed it would happen, there was NO message at the end of the show offering a link to ABC’s website and the public service announcement. This means viewers were completely unaware they could go to the “Private Practice” section of ABC.com and get the PSI web address and phone number to get more information and support. I checked twice, using my TIVO to go through the end of the show frame by frame in case the message flipped by fast and I missed it. They did have enough time, I notice, to inform me that the show’s costume designer was Cynthia Bergstrom and that the department head hair stylist was Gwyne Redner. I guess it was more important to use that time to promote next week’s crossover episodes between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.”
To make things EVEN worse, the “Private Practice” website now has a poll with the following question: “Should a woman undergoing psychiatric treatment after nearly drowning her child be allowed to see the baby?” Possible answers: Yes, it will motivate her to get better or No, She can’t be trusted right now. Gee, I wonder how the public will respond … Fortunately, as of now, the poll shows more people answering Yes, but that’s only because I and all my colleagues have been rushing to the site to answer it. Does ABC think that poll is particularly helpful? Was that part of its strategy to help others and destigmatize these illnesses?
Additionally, the show’s Medical Researcher’s Blog, written by Moira McMahon, does a fairly lousy job of explaining postpartum psychosis, and doesn’t mention any of the other illnesses in the perinatal mood and anxiety disorder spectrum and how they may be different, or even how rare psychosis is. At the end of her post, she writes:
“But should a woman who almost drowned her baby have access to her child?
And how did her husband miss her mental illness?
What would you do?”
Wow. That goes a long way in eliminating stigma. Or helping people understand the treatability of these illnesses. Or helping husbands know what signs to look for. Or helping new mothers feel safe in reaching out for help.
There’s no point in complaining to ABC about it — they’ll just say it was out of their control, they tried, there was no space, time, etc. I know how it works. I’ve worked at a Fortune 100 corporation — it’s always easier to beg for forgiveness after the fact than to do what you should. If I did complain directly, they’d argue that at least they covered the topic and that they did put together the 22-second PSA featuring actress Amy Brenneman (standing in a corner) on their site which they didn’t have to do. That is true. But it doesn’t excuse the fact that it was possible to do this entire thing much more responsibly. They could have listened to admonitions to please not do the show on postpartum psychosis. They could have consulted true experts on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders to get it right. They could have aired the link to the PSA that they promised. If you say you want to help others, why not follow through on it 100 percent?
Just as I stopped going to Tom Cruise movies, I will not watch “Private Practice” ever again. In fact, I may stop watching my favorite ABC show “Grey’s Anatomy” and switch over to NBC which has equally compelling shows in the 9pm EST time slot (“The Office” and “30 Rock”). I ask you to please join me to PULL THE PLUG ON PRIVATE PRACTICE. C’mon ladies and gents, use your voices.
And, no, I’m not overreacting, and here’s why: We have to start somewhere. We have to stand up at some point and let the media know the way they treat perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and mental illness in general, is unacceptable. We have to tell them that the power they have to influence and move others is much too enormous to be improperly used. We have to make sure the information that moms and moms-to-be receive is correct and measured and encourages them to get the treatment they need. We have a responsibility to help the infants in our country have healthy mothers. If we don’t make our feelings known loud and clear nothing will ever change. We owe it to many millions of women who will suffer perinatal mood and anxiety disorders in the next decade.
If you plan to stop watching “Private Practice”, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Postpartum Progress. I also encourage you to write about this on your own blogs and use the tag “Pull the Plug on Private Practice.”
Here are some other bloggers’ takes on this:
Susan Stone at Perinatal Pro: “ABC’s Private (Mal)Practice Fails to Present the Facts In a Botched Opportunity to Raise PPD Awareness”:
“Postpartum psychosis is extremely rare with incidence less than 2% and was not accurately presented in this three ring circus. The implication that postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis are interchangeable labels is incredibly irresponsible.
But the show’s mothers weren’t the only target of ignorance and blatant indifference to client care. The show also managed to insult every health care professional associated with the mother’s illness. The therapist came off as a clueless, self-absorbed nut case who failed to advocate for her client …”
Lauren Hale at Unexpected Blessing: “ABC’s Private Practice Misses the Mark”
“Then Violet didn’t want to give the baby back to the mother for fear that THEY would be the ones thought of as “what were you thinking!?” We work SO hard to fight against the myth that a mother’s baby will be taken from her if she seeks help. I can’t help but think about how many new moms saw this show and may possibly avoid seeking help because of this portrayal.”
Amber at Beyond Postpartum: “Does ABC Care?”:
“WHY did Rachel have to hold the baby under the bathwater when she fell? … This was a great opportunity to go down a different path. To talk about something more common and educate a population of Americans who are VERY unsympathetic and completely filled with rage. Below each and every national media article about postpartum psychosis you see hundreds of comments from angry people who do not understand postpartum mood disorders. They chastise the women who suffer and offer no sympathy. They make statements like, “How could she do this to a helpless child? She was not sick, she was just selfish.” Those of us who have suffered or know someone who did know better. But look people, MOST Americans are not educated and need to be. Let’s utilize the means that we have to help them to learn…to understand…to see the full story and to find their way to a place where in America routine screening, referral and treatment are no longer options but mandatory steps in the postpartum period.
I think ABC lost an opportunity here to shed light on a real and prevalent illness for their selfish desire to get ratings and viewers from the more dramatic and interesting spin that just one aspect of the story elicited. Oh well. At least it got people talking about PPMDs.”
NOTE: This post represents my views only, not those of the board of Postpartum Support International.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Feb 2009
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Stone, K. (2009). ABC Should Be Ashamed of “Private Practice” Postpartum Psychosis Episode. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/02/13/abc-should-be-ashamed-of-private-practice-postpartum-psychosis-episode/