Georgia experts warn of a growing maternal mental health crisis and why it’s important to get help

Melissa Keane and Elizabeth O'Brien speak at the Advanced Perinatal Mental Health Training hosted at Mercer University on April 15. / Georgia Public Broadcasting

Postpartum mental health issues are common among new moms.

Experts at a training session for advanced perinatal mental health, hosted April 15 at Mercer University, had one consistent message: Diagnosis and treatment aren't always provided to those that need it, and that can have fatal consequences.

The training focused on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, which include depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and, sometimes, psychosis.

Close to 700 people in Georgia reported postpartum depressive symptoms in 2020, though the number of unreported cases likely makes the number affected much higher. Between 2015 and 2020, there were 28 deaths by suicide in Georgia in which the person was "pregnant at time of death, within one year of death or not otherwise specified," according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(READ MORE: Report: Tennessee among worst states for maternal health before abortion ban enacted)

Overall, Georgia also has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the country.

Dagmar Carroll, a public health nurse from Camden County, said she dealt with depression during and after her own high-risk pregnancy.

"It's so easy to say, 'Are you depressed today? No,'" Carroll said. "But really, you're not realizing that the symptoms that you're having are depression or anxiety or the OCD."

Lorie Shewmake is a breastfeeding peer counselor, also from the Camden County Health Department. She experienced postpartum depression following the birth of both her children, and said the hardest part of getting help was telling her husband about it.

"That was the scariest part of my life, is actually just talking to him about it and letting him know," Shewmake said. "Because like everybody else, I didn't want to burden him with my thoughts."

(READ MORE: Tennessee health equity report focuses on racial disparities in outcomes)

Education on diagnosis and treatment of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders aren't often included in medical school curricula. Plus, almost every county in Georgia has a mental health provider shortage.

Perinatal mental health counselors Melissa Keane and Elizabeth O'Brien hosted just over two hours of training during the Mercer event, including information on best practices for perinatal mood and anxiety disorder screening.

There are several screening tools widely used by medical professionals to help detect risk factors and possible symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders among pre- and postpartum people. But sometimes, screening can start with one simple line, Keane said.

"It seems like you're having a hard time," she demonstrated. "Let me connect you with somebody who can help you."

Keane said screening for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders needs to happen earlier in pregnancy.

"Anyone that's on the ground talking to either a pregnant or postpartum mom or a family member of theirs, they're the ones that are going to have the opportunity to open up the door, tell them about resources and refer them to treatment," Keane said.

(READ MORE: Tennessee denied federal reproductive health care funds because of abortion law)

Because ultimately, once new mothers find it, treatment is effective.

GPB partnered with Mercer University on the Advanced Perinatal Mental Health Training as part of it's suicide awareness education efforts.