When Sepideh Saremi, 32, started crying frequently and feeling moody and tired during her second trimester of pregnancy, she just chalked it up to shifting hormones.
And, as a first-time mother, her unfamiliarity with pregnancy. But as the weeks went on, Saremi, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, noticed a spike in her anxiety, plummeting moods, and an overall feeling that nothing mattered. Still, despite her clinical training, she brushed it off as everyday stress and part of the pregnancy.
By the third trimester, Saremi became hypersensitive to everything around her and could no longer ignore the red flags. If her doctor asked routine questions, she felt like he was picking on her. She started to struggle with all social interactions that weren’t work-related. She cried all the time — “and not in that clichéd, hormonal-pregnant-lady way,” Saremi says.
Depression during pregnancy isn’t something you can just ‘shake off’
According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and The American Psychiatric Association (APA), between 14 and 23 percent of women will experience some symptoms of depression during pregnancy. But misconceptions about perinatal depression — depression during pregnancy and after childbirth — can make it tough for women to get the answers they need, says Dr. Gabby Farkas, a New York-based therapist who specializes in reproductive mental health issues.
“Patients tell us all the time that their family members tell them to ‘shake it off’ and get themselves together,” Farkas says. “Society at large thinks that pregnancy and having the baby is the happiest period of a woman’s life and that’s the only way to experience this. When in fact, women experience a whole spectrum of emotions during this time.”
Shame prevented me from getting help
For Saremi, the road to getting proper care was long. During one of her third trimester visits, she says she discussed her feelings with her OB-GYN and was told she had one of the worst scores on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) that he’d ever seen.
But there is help for depression during pregnancy, says Catherine Monk, PhD and associate professor of Medical Psychology (Psychiatry and Obstetrics and Gynecology) at Columbia University. In addition to therapy, she says, it’s safe to take certain antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Saremi says she did discuss the results of the test with her therapist, whom she’d been seeing before she became pregnant. But, she adds, her doctors both kind of wrote it off.
“I rationalized that most people lie on screeners, so my score was probably so high because I’d been the only honest person — which is ridiculous when I think about it now. And she thought I didn’t seem that depressed [because] I didn’t seem it from the outside.”
“It felt like a light turned off in my brain”
It’s unlikely that a woman who has experienced depression during her pregnancy will magically feel different once her baby is born. In fact, the feelings can continue to compound. When her son was born, Saremi says it quickly became clear to her that she was in an unsustainable situation when it came to her mental health.
“Almost immediately after his birth — while I was still in the delivery room — it felt like all the lights turned off in my brain. I felt like I was fully enveloped in a dark cloud and I could see outside it, but nothing I saw made sense. I didn’t feel connected to myself, much less my baby.”
Saremi had to cancel newborn pictures because she says she couldn’t stop crying, and when she got home, she was overwhelmed by “scary, intrusive thoughts.”
Afraid to be alone with her son or leave the house with him by herself, Saremi confesses she felt hopeless and despondent. According to Farkas, these feelings are common among women with perinatal depression and it’s important to normalize them by encouraging women to seek help. “Many of them feel guilty for not feeling 100 percent happy during this time,” Farkas says.
“Many struggle with the tremendous change having a baby means (e.g. my life is not about me anymore) and the responsibility of what it means to care for another human being who is fully dependent on them,” she adds.
It was time to get help
By the time Saremi hit one month postpartum, she was so worn out and tired that she says, “I didn’t want to live.”
She actually began researching ways to end her life. The suicidal thoughts were intermittent and not long-lasting. But even after they’d passed, the depression remained. At about five months postpartum, Saremi had her first-ever panic attack during a Costco shopping trip with her baby. “I decided I was ready to get some help,” she says.
Saremi talked to her primary care doctor about her depression, and was happy to discover he was both professional and nonjudgmental. He referred her to a therapist and suggested a prescription for an antidepressant. She opted to try therapy first and still goes once a week.