A University of Iowa researcher is working with the Veterans Administration on a pilot program to help female veterans suffering from postpartum depression.
MomMoodBooster is an online intervention tool that helps mothers who live in rural areas cope with their depression.
“Women in rural areas often don’t seek out or have access to mental health care,” says Michael O’Hara, professor and Starch Faculty Fellow in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “Reaching out in particular to rural veteran women seemed to me like it was just something important to do.”
Each year, about 300,000 new mothers in the United States suffer from postpartum depression, experiencing low moods, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, insomnia, appetite disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and suicidal thoughts—and O’Hara says this estimate is low.
So far, about 40 women from across the country have taken part in MomMoodBooster with positive results. Over a six-week period, women participate in six sessions that target managing mood, increasing pleasant activities, managing negative thoughts, increasing positive thoughts, and planning for the future. Phone coaches also call to check in with the women, tracking progress, answering questions, and providing encouragement.
O’Hara says it seems possible, given the combat experience of many female veterans, that they may be more at risk for depression, though that has not been quantified.
“I was in the Navy for four-and-a-half years, and it’s not an easy life,” O’Hara says. “These are women who have served our country, and we have a way of contacting them. You put that together, and it’s sort of a winning combination.”
Treating postpartum depression is important not only for mothers, but also for the well-being of their children. A depressed parent often pays less attention to the baby’s cues, either interacting less and neglecting the child or working so hard to interact that the baby becomes overwhelmed, leading to developmental problems.
The self-focus caused by depression can be harmful to children in other ways as well. For example, when parents choose whether to make a meal or drive to a fast food restaurant, depression can influence them to make the easier choice.
“Any time a parent is distracted by mental health concerns, this can lead to problems with the children,” O’Hara says. “We know that inconsistent parenting often makes it harder for children to internalize societal rules, a situation that often sets the stage for behavior problems. Having parents who are emotionally stable is quite a benefit to the child.”
For some women, postpartum depression represents a recurrence of depression at a stressful time in their lives. For others, it stems from issues surrounding the marriage, finances, or simply the challenge of caring for an infant. Biologically, there is increasing evidence that pregnancy hormones may the set the stage for low mood, which, when combined with environmental factors, may cause postpartum depression.
“The most dominant things I see are poor social support systems and conflict with the partner,” O’Hara says.
The program will continue at least through the end of September, when the VA will determine whether to continue funding, and O’Hara expects to write a research study based on the results of the pilot. The MomMoodBooster project is funded by the VA Office of Rural Health and the VA Office of Women’s Health Services.