Bremner’s False Claims about Postpartum Depression
Psychiatrist J. Douglas Bremner has weighed in on the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act, an effort to provide voluntary screenings to pregnant women to help identify postpartum depression before it becomes overwhelming. I’ll let Bremner speak for himself:
The problem with this is the attitude that being a mother is a risk factor for a psychiatric disorder. First of all, there is no evidence that women without a prior history of anxiety and depression have any increased risk of getting post partum depression. So to screen all moms as if giving birth is a risk factor for depression is ridiculous.
My BS alert goes off whenever someone tries to change the argument from a reasonable effort to help increase education and information about a stigmatized mental health issue, to hyperbole, suggesting that a piece of legislation is trying to turn motherhood into a psychiatric disorder. It goes off again when a professional makes an extraordinary claim like, “there is no evidence that women without a prior history of anxiety and depression have any increased risk of getting post partum [sic] depression.” Really? Absolutely no evidence? That’s quite a strong statement, and easily proven false with a literature review.
Where shall we begin? (I have limited space and you have a limited attention span, so I’ll just highlight a few studies…)
Ross & Dennis (2009), for instance, in a literature review found that both substance use and current or past experiences of abuse are associated with increased risk for postpartum depression (PPD).
In urban South African women, Ramchandani and colleagues (2009) found the strongest predictors of postnatal depression were exposure to extreme societal stressors (e.g., witnessing a violent crime/danger of being killed) and reporting difficulties with their partner.
Robertson et al. (2004), in a large meta-analysis of research to-date, found that a previous history of depression and anxiety (not just during pregnancy) was predictive of postpartum depression. But they also found that simply experiencing a stressful life event during pregnancy or low levels of social support (e.g., not having any emotional support from your friends or family) could also lead to postpartum depression.
Beck’s (2001) meta-analysis of 84 studies found:
13 significant predictors of postpartum depression: prenatal depression, self-esteem, childcare stress, prenatal anxiety, life stress, social support, marital relationships, depression history, infant temperament, maternity blues, marital status, SES, and unplanned/unwanted pregnancy. 10 of the 13 risk factors had moderate effect sizes while 3 predictors had small effect sizes.
Look at all of those factors which are not depression or anxiety — I count 9. Even if 3 of those are small-effect size factors, that still leaves 6 factors which are not depression or anxiety.
What about the argument that if depressed women are the most at-risk, we should simply focus on them?
Ingram & Taylor (2007) found it wasn’t just a woman’s pre-birth depression severity that was important — poor emotional support and women who had more negative descriptions of their own childhood were additional risk factors that played a role in increased risk for postpartum depression. Who’s going to screen for these things, the obstetrician?
Well, no, because the obstetrician is already not doing a good job at screening for postpartum depression, even in high-risk women. Hatton et al. (2007) found that, among high-risk women, obstetric care providers may be overlooking up to one fifth of women with current major depression. Not exactly great numbers there. If obstetric care providers can’t deal with the obvious cases, I can only imagine how well they do with the more complex or less obvious ones.
Monk et al. (2008) sums the state of our knowledge on PPD:
Depression is relatively common during the perinatal period (Gavin et al. 2005; Ross and McLean 2006). Approximately 8.5–11% of women experience either a major or minor depression during pregnancy (Gaynes et al. 2005). Nearly 20% of women have a minor or major depression in the first 3 months following delivery (Gavin et al. 2005).
So up to 1 in 5 women have depression after giving birth, and this isn’t something worth noting or screening for? (For comparison’s sake, 1 in 10 men and women in the general population might have depression at any given time.) Giving birth doubles your risk of depression, and this isn’t an issue? Amazing.
But don’t just take my word for it. Zajicek-Farber’s (2009) study conducted on high-risk women for postpartum depression concluded that:
These findings provide additional supportive evidence that more efforts are needed to identify and assess women’s depressive symptoms to promote health and safety of young children.
These are objective researchers calling for more screenings. Not politicians. And not people (or professionals) with a political agenda.
Now, I understand Bremner’s point — let’s not medicalize and catastrophize ordinary motherhood. I agree. And of course a woman’s pre-birth depression or anxiety is strongly correlated to postpartum depression. But not exclusively, as Bremner claims.
Bremner claims, with no evidence, that all mental health screenings are simply pharmaceutical sales tactics to help increase prescriptions. That’s ridiculous. When I worked in community mental health, we ran annual mental health screenings in the clinic — with no funding from any pharmaceutical company — because it reduces stigma, decreases misinformation and increases education about mental health issues in the general population.
Sorry, but most people don’t have time to keep up with a dozen blogs or read monthly journals on the latest research in mental health. Most people know what they know about mental health largely through mainstream media, or their own first-hand experiences with an issue. How is the promotion of more information and education about mental health issues a bad thing?
Bremner uses teens as an example of screening gone wrong, but conveniently fails to mention the facts about teenagers and mental health. Teens are an “at-risk” population, hence the reason they are sometimes targeted for screenings. Teens are notorious for being limited in their treatment options (especially in the U.S., where their treatment may be covered by their family’s health insurance, meaning a talk with their parents about their mental health issues), and for peer pressure limiting their ability to accept or seek help. (Yes, sorry, if you’re seeing a therapist for depression as a teen, you’re typically not seen as a “cool” kid.)
Sadly, whether people want to admit it or not, mothers are another “at risk” population. Why? Because society has told mothers time and time again that giving birth is supposed to be a joyous, happy occasion. If you’re depressed after giving birth to a child, there must be something wrong with you. Don’t draw attention to yourself or your problems. Just try and deal with it, try and take care of the baby, and make it through each day. Mothers don’t know they might have something recognized as postpartum depression, much less that they can talk to someone about these feelings or that there’s treatment — psychotherapy or medication — readily available for it.
So respectfully, I disagree with Bremner’s assessment of the MOTHERS act and its need in today’s society. And if you’re not going to bother to do the legwork and just make general (false) pronouncements about what the research actually shows (or worse, suggest the all research that disagrees with you must be in pharma’s pocket), then that’s a lazy person’s argument. There are too many logical fallacies at work here to list, so I’ll just suggest that I expect more reasoned and professional arguments –based upon the actual research — about such important legislation.
Psych Central continues to support the Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act because the research shows it would help in the efforts to increase education and correct mis-information about postpartum depression.
Beck, C.T. (2001). Predictors of postpartum depression: An update. Nursing Research, 50(5), 275-285.
Hatton, D. C., Harrison-Hohner, J., Matarazzo, J., E.P., Lewy, A. & Davis .L. (2007). Missed antenatal depression among high risk women: A secondary analysis. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 10(3), 121-123.
Ingram, J. & Taylor, J. (2007). Predictors of postnatal depression: Using an antenatal needs assessment discussion tool. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 25(3), 210-222.
Monk, C., Leight, K.L. & Fang, Y. (2008). The relationship between women’s attachment style and perinatal mood disturbance: Implications for screening and treatment. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 11(2), 117-129.
Ramchandani, P.G., Richter, L.M., Stein, A. & Norris, S.A. (2009). Predictors of postnatal depression in an urban South African cohort. Journal of Affective Disorders, 113(3), 279-284.
Robertson, E., Grace, S., Wallington, T., Stewart, D.E. (2004). Antenatal risk factors for postpartum depression: a synthesis of recent literature. General Hospital Psychiatry, 26(4), 289-295.
Ross, L. E. & Dennis, C-L. (2009). The prevalence of postpartum depression among women with substance use, an abuse history, or chronic illness: A systematic review (PDF). Journal of Women’s Health, 18(4), 475-486.
Zajicek-Farber, M.L. (2009). Postnatal depression and infant health practices among high-risk women. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 18(2), 236-245.
Grohol, J. (2016). Bremner’s False Claims about Postpartum Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 29, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/07/14/bremners-false-claims-about-postpartum-depression/