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3 Ways California Is Trying To Help New Moms Get Treatment For Depression

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It's common for moms to struggle with anxiety and depression during and after pregnancy. But most women aren't screened for conditions like postpartum depression or connected with treatment.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of new laws that aims to change that by increasing awareness, screening, and funding for treatment of maternal mental health disorders.

"When it's not treated, [postpartum depression] turns into chronic depression or anxiety and that affects that person's relationships with their child, their spouse, their partner, with their parents, their friends, their workplace and community-at-large," said Kelly O'Connor Kay, interim executive director of Maternal Mental Health NOW, a local advocacy group, which co-sponsored the legislation.

Up to 1 in 7 women experience postpartum depression after pregnancy, according to the American Psychological Association, and the California Department of Public Health estimates it's 1 in 5 here. The rates are much higher among women living in poverty and California has some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

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New mothers suffering from depression are less likely to breastfeed or have strong attachment to their babies, and the risk of suicide increases.

"We're changing some lives here in California around maternal mental health," said Joy Burkhard, director of 2020 Mom, which also co-sponsored the legislation, in a Facebook post announcing the passage of the legislation.


This moment has actually been in the making for years. As the issue has gotten more attention in the state, there's been a task force and a report with recommendations for improving care, but things really got moving earlier this year when one mom wrote about her experience seeking treatment in a Facebook post that went viral.

After she had her second baby, Jessica Porten went to the doctor because she was concerned about how she was feeling and suspected postpartum depression. After she told the nurse about the angry, and sometimes violent, thoughts she'd been having, the nurse called the police. She was held for 10 hours and sent home with some pamphlets.

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A few days later, the maternal health advocacy group 2020 Momheld a small rally at the state capitol.

"There has to be something in between 'you're unfit to parent, we're committing you to a psychiatric hospital' and 'here's some pamphlets, good luck,' Porten said on the Capitol building steps. "We have to do something better for our mothers."

This got the attention of Republican Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, who authored two of the bills. The other is authored by Democratic Assemblyman Jim Frazier.


The first bill in the package to pass was one that requires the state department of public health to seek out more funding for maternal mental health from the federal government. There's a new pot available from the Bringing Postpartum Depression Out of the Shadows Act, which passed in 2016. This one was very straightforward, but still significant because it's the first piece of legislation related to maternal mental health that's been passed in California.

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Another lawrequires that hospitals educate staff who treat pregnant and postpartum women about the condition, and also provide information about symptoms and treatment options to the women under their care.

The Assembly also passed a bill this spring to increase awareness among the general public by making May, the same month as Mother's Day, Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month.


The third in the package is the most substantial. It requires practitioners who see women before and after pregnancy -- be it a doctor, nurse practitioner or midwife - to screen for maternal mental health conditions.

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"One of the reasons why OBs don't screen is because they don't know what to do with the patient when they screen positive," said O'Connor Kay.

To address that piece of the puzzle, this law also requires health insurers to develop maternal mental health programs that medical providers can seek out. It also makes sure that screening comes with referrals and support.


Maternal Mental Health NOW has a searchable resource directory on its website.

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