The two most common ways to treat PMAD are medication and therapy. I will start by coming right out and declaring that I am pro-medication. However, I have learned from talking to many moms (in group and on forums) that there is a LOT of misinformation regarding medication which may be causing undue avoidance. Unfortunately, I find that an alarming amount of this misinformation is coming from healthcare professionals themselves.
First and foremost: Sertraline and Zoloft are safe to take while breastfeeding. These drugs have been studied (along with many others) and it has been determined that no effective amount of the ingredients get into the mother’s breastmilk to be transmitted to the infant. If you seek antidepressants and your doctor tells you that you cannot have them because you are breastfeeding, PLEASE get a second opinion from another practice. Unfortunately, this is an example of how foreign PMAD still is in the medical world, and how much educating still needs to be done. I know I’m just some woman on the internet and you won’t want to listen to me over your doctor (that is safe and healthy skepticism, good for you!), but I am telling you this because the two mental health professionals who run my support group (a MSW LCSW-C, and a APRM-PMH BC who collectively have over 20 years experience and specialized, focused training and education regarding reproductive mental health) preach it regularly. If you have no reason to believe me, please believe them and their professional expertise – they have dedicated themselves to learning all there is to know about this. All I’m asking is that you seek a second opinion.
Personally, I used Sertraline for several weeks following my hospitalization. My doctor put me on 50mg at the beginning. This is a starting dose and is not considered a “therapeutic dose” (meaning it isn’t enough to actually resolve your symptoms). Antidepressants are often prescribed this way because, for best results, they should be slowly introduced into your body rather than all at once. This also gives you a chance to determine if you have any severe side effects on a low dose before you move up and they are potentially worsened. I did well on the starting dose, so I went back in 2 weeks and was bumped up to 100mg. My doctor wanted me to set a follow up appointment for 90 days after that to assess and see if we should increase to 150mg. She said if I felt like I needed more sooner than that (but after 30-45 days) I could reschedule and come back earlier.
As helpful as medications can be, this is the problem with them. They are not free. Doctors are not free. Every visit to my doctor cost me a copay (at minimum), not to mention the cost of the actual medication. Also, I had to schedule all of these appointments around my work and home life. This is asking a lot of women who are already feeling overwhelmed and having trouble juggling all of their responsibilities. Let’s look at a rough, low estimate breakdown of getting medication:
Initial visit and assessment: $20 copay
50mg prescription: $15
Follow up visit and assessment: $20 copay
100mg prescription: $15
Follow up visit and assessment: $20 copay
So already, assuming there are only copays, no deductible or coinsurance, and relatively inexpensive medication, this problem costs $90 (not to mention the cost of potentially missing work to attend appointments). But what if the first medication doesn’t work? That’s more appointments, more missed work, more copays, and more prescriptions as you keep trying. Also, this process is not a short one – these medications can take 4-6 weeks to reach full effect. That is a lot of time, money, and stress to put on someone who is struggling with a mental health issue. Also, if you are not satisfied with a medication, you have to slowly wean off of it which brings me to another potential problem you could encounter: antidepressant withdrawal.
It’s real, and it’s HORRIBLE. I had to stop taking Sertraline because it gave me insomnia and I found that when I didn’t get sleep, all of my symptoms were exacerbated. I’ve had issues with Zoloft in the past, so I was worried about this, but tried anyway. I told my doctor and she told me to wean off by going back down from my 100mg dose to the 50mg. I did this for a few days, but was so desperate for sleep that I stopped entirely one day and that was a bad idea. Even right before my hospitalization, I have never felt depression like this. This was thicker, this was darker, this was different. My mind was completely dedicated to horrible, negative, self-loathing thoughts. I hated myself more than usual. I wanted to hurt myself more than ever, but the lethargy and lack of motivation were so much stronger that I could’t get out of bed to do it. I barely survived until the sitter arrived, then I took days off of work to lie in bed. I did this to myself by stopping my medication the way I did, so I implore anyone who wants to stop an antidepressant to PLEASE wean down!
Even after my experience, I am still a supporter of medication for PMAD. In my case, my best medication so far has been the Pill, but that is because of my PCOS and is not going to work for everybody. What the Pill does for me is balance my chemicals in a way that optimizes me. That’s what other women can get from antidepressants, and the medical field could really stand to catch up on the latest information. While I do promote medication to treat mental health issues, I definitely understand and value the importance of therapy when treating PMAD, as well. But if you thought the hoops required for medication were bad, hold on to your butts as we go through the process of getting therapy…
The most important thing for therapy when it comes to treating PMAD is making sure that the professional you are working with understands the condition. Nearly every therapist will tell you that they have treated Postpartum Depression or that they handle “life transition issues,” but this is not at all the same as specializing in PMAD or reproductive mental health. Mostly mental health professionals have an idea in their mind of what PPD is and looks like. When I was being processed for intake at the hospital, I heard one of my nurses tell the other that she didn’t think I had PPD because she’d seen me with my baby in the ER and I had been making eye contact with him. To her, that’s what PPD should look like – I should be detached from my baby. However, as most moms suffering PMAD can tell you (especially in the spotlight of social media), we’re excellent pretenders. No one who saw me with my baby knew that I wasn’t bonded to him. Hell, I put on a show so the baby himself wouldn’t know. A properly educated mental health professional would know that potentially 1) I am a pretender because it is socially unacceptable to not be in love with your baby or 2) Detachment from my baby isn’t one of my symptoms.
Upon discharge, I tried to find a therapist that my insurance would cover. Unfortunately, both of the women who run my support group are out of network. At first I tried working with the insurance to find someone in network. I tried using their online tool which did not work, so I called and spoke with a rep. I described what I wanted (an in-network therapist within 10 miles of my zip code who said they treat PPD). The search yielded literally hundreds of results. I’ll tell you now, I know suburban life can be rough, but it’s not “hundreds of therapists within 10 miles” rough. As I found out (by calling and emailing dozens of therapists suggested by my insurance), the insurance’s information was severely out of date. None of the people they recommended were 1) still in practice 2) still in the area and 3) still accepting my insurance.
I decided to talk to my insurance and request a special case agreement that would allow me to see a therapist of my choice and be reimbursed. I was told that because there were so many in-network therapists in my area that it would never be approved. I gave up and never found a therapist. Talking to my insurance was so defeating and painful that I stopped trying to find help. I want to mention here that I was a medical biller for 7 years before I decided to stay at home; it was my job to call and talk to insurances about these kinds of things, and I was good at it. But when it came to getting treatment for myself, I wasn’t able to get through the red tape and actually get help.
The difficulty (and ultimate failure) I encountered in trying to seek medical help for myself is disgusting. I hear similar stories from other moms in group and online all the time, and I am absolutely devastated by the lack of resources, education, and assistance available to women who are struggling with PMAD and other mental health issues. It’s bad enough that we often have to convince our families and friends that PMAD is real and requires treatment, but when that is not the hardest part of this process, the process is clearly broken.