By Susan Dowd Stone
While we await positive action from our nation’s legislators on The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act, questions arise. Some have wondered why we need a federal bill in place when we have so many well known organizations and individuals devoted to ending the ignorance of pregnancy related mood disorders. Hasn’t this issue received enough attention these past three years? With all the media, famous advocates and well respected leaders speaking out, the growing science and research substantiating the seriousness of untreated maternal depression – aren’t we done? Aren’t many thousands more people now aware of postpartum depression, thanks to the CBS Cares public service campaign, news stories on every major and local network, the power of the blogosphere, conferences, state’s responses and organizations like PSI, EmpowHer and many others? And aren’t there now more services and treatment options available as mothers face what is often the fight of their life? NO. We are barely beyond the starting line.
It’s true we now have two states out of 50 with legislation on the books strongly encouraging screening, education for consumers and healthcare providers and services for new mothers. Many other states are in the process of developing programs thanks to the tireless efforts of grassroots organizations and advocates who have decided that lives will not be lost on their watch by the devastation of untreated maternal depression. But their sustainability is uncertain and often depends on the generosity of donors and foundations besieged with requests for funding. We now have one or maybe two hospitals in the whole country where women can seek treatment with their infants and avoid the damaging and often unnecessary separations when intense services are required.
We need a federal response because research and education .. not geography... should determine what services will be consistently available to all American mothers. And that is exactly the goal that The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act intends to initiate.
There is nothing in TMBSMA that suggests mandates for anything.. no conspiracy to medicate moms, take away children - its modest request for funding streamlines the focus of its initiatives - READ THE SUMMARY and see for yourself. This truly bipartisan effort is about research education and provision of services for long suffering moms who have not had such access in the past and disgracefully still don't. Currently only 15% of afflicted mothers will ever receive any treatment.
Treatment can take many forms including social support, consumer education, better nutrition and self care, therapy, and sometimes medication. No choice should ever be discouraged - each women's experience is as unique as her life, and her recovery plan should reflect all available options! To cast aspersions or imply weakness when medication is warranted for recovery is like telling a diabetic woman she should be ashamed of taking her insulin.
We routinely screen - without any public outcry - for many other pregnancy related conditions whose incidence is less than the up to 20% of mothers (that's 800,000 without counting women who miscarry or whose babies are stillborn) who may develop a serious mood disorder this year! There is a long list of other illnesses - including breast cancer - which appear less frequently among American women, but which generate appropriate and unquestioned societal, legislative and healthcare response. But we do not consistently and routinely ask the right questions of pregnant and postpartum women. The difference is the stigma of mental illness.
Research continues to point to early brain development in the neonate as exquisitely sensitive to its environment – an environment whose quality largely depends on the health and abilities of its mother. In no other illness is the fate and future health of one innocent so closely tied to the present health and abilities of another. So we can pretty much double the number of those directly affected by pregnancy related mood disorders without argument. The statistics of those afflicated will continue to rise in numbers completely disproportionate to our abysmal response.
Perhaps when further research on long term societal, family and psychological effects finally translates into economic loss, this destroyer of our motherhood's expected joy will finally receive the attention needed to end truly needless suffering. The irony is that here's one condition where PRIMARY PREVENTION, i.e. methods to reduce the incidence and effects...is entirely possible. By our avoidance and refusal to implement a national, prosocial and adequate response we pay many times over for such ignorance... and those who pay the most are our most vulnerable citizens.
One can only incredulously wonder why on earth there would be any objection to federal encouragement and support for the research, education and services needed to end the loss of lives and incalculable suffering. Federal support means everyone is on notice to get up to speed. Federal support means the services are available to the many, not just the few. And federal support and acknowledgement means the beginning of the end of stigma.
The reality of maternal mental illness is a fact which cannot be challenged. The battle could go on another ten years depending on our demands of our elected officials to end a public health crisis. But while constituents remain inert about taking action, while we split hairs over definitions,form camps about what treatment is best, allow our legislators to politicize the problem and take aim at each other instead of the issue, suffering is prolonged for those too ill to participate in the calls for help.
Bills are passed for new roads while mothers experience unfathomable despair. Bills are passed for bicycle helmets while the partners of such mothers initiate a desperate search for help. Bills are passed for mortgage relief and campaign finance reform while babies cry alone.
Women are the majority of voters and our children are held up as the future of our country yet we are often silent for ourselves and our children - unused to the direct solicitation of our opinion as one that deeply matters and which can shape future policy. We are often too quickly grateful for any consideration received instead of demanding what is truly needed. The transformative magnificence of the internet is that it offers busy mothers and those who love them - a path to power, an internet megaphone, a virtual march on Washington, and the facilitation of unity despite the distracted isolation of daily demands.