Sometime in mid-2005, a war of words was being waged in Hollywood between A-list actors Brooke Shields and Tom Cruise. It began when Cruise criticized Shields during an interview for Access Hollywood for the use of an antidepressant drug called Paxil (paroxetine hydrocholride) to help her recover from postpartum depression. Cruise, an avid Scientologist, believes that all forms of psychiatry and drug treatment for mental illness are wrong. Shields later hit back in an article published in the New York Times, calling Cruise’s comments “irresponsible and dangerous,” telling him to keep his opinions to himself. She points out that in her book, “Down Came The Rain,” a personal account of her struggle with postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter Rowan, she merely stressed that women should not be ashamed to get help for this distressing and possibly debilitating condition. She writes, “Don’t be ashamed, and don’t disregard what you are feeling…I recovered only because I got help.”

Postpartum depression is a serious condition afflicting mothers who have just had a baby, regardless of whether it’s their first, second or eleventh child. It is also referred to as postpartum non-psychotic depression, and may affect as many as ten to twenty percent of women within the first year after childbirth. The symptoms may include depressed mood, tearfulness, inability to enjoy pleasurable activities, trouble sleeping, fatigue, appetite problems, suicidal thoughts, feelings of inadequacy as a parent, and impaired concentration. Some women with postpartum depression may feel that they cannot cope with the baby for fear of harming him or her, worrying about the baby’s health and well being while having negative thoughts about him or her. The condition will interfere with a woman’s ability to care for the baby, and the sufferer will adopt several coping methods such as avoidance coping, problem focused coping, support seeking coping and venting coping. Avoidance coping involves denial and behavioral disengagement from the baby. Problem focused coping refers to the sufferer’s use of strategies such as active coping, planning, and positive reframing to deal with the problem. Support seeking coping is when the sufferer actively seeks emotional and instrumental support from those around her. Venting and self-blame is another coping strategy that the sufferer might employ to deal with postpartum depression.

Many researchers believe that this condition is caused by the fluctuation of hormones during pregnancy and after childbirth. While it is natural to feel stressed out, tired and anxious about childcare, such feelings should disappear quickly after childbirth. This is referred to as the “baby blues,” a passing state of heightened emotions peaking around three to five days after giving birth and may last from several days up to two weeks. The symptoms of the baby blues are similar to that of postpartum depression, so many frequently dismiss their feelings as the former. Unfortunately, while women can recover naturally from the baby blues, postpartum depression needs medical attention.

Severe postpartum depression is called postpartum (puerperal) psychosis, although this extreme form is rare and may be related to other mood disorders. However it does require immediate medical attention. In some cases, a woman with severe postpartum depression may become suicidal and consider killing her infant and young children not from anger, but from a desire not to abandon them.

Postpartum depression can affect the whole family. Because people are raised to believe that pregnancy and childbirth are natural processes that run smoothly without effort, many parents are taken aback when they are hit by this condition. It puts undue stress on the couple’s relationship with each other as well as to the baby and other family members. The condition is not as uncommon as many believe. However, lack of education about postpartum depression and the stigma and shame that comes with having such a condition may hinder them from seeking help. Brooke Shields’ public battle with Tom Cruise may have been annoying to some, but it actually shed light on a potentially harmful condition. Today, more women are empowered to seek help from their family, doctors and their community.

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