Shortly before last Mother's Day, 28-year-old Lauren Meehan-Machos broke down in front of her startled husband. "This is more than I can handle," she sobbed.
The typically confident and self-assured Cary, NC, mom -- a former Miss New Hampshire -- had felt overwhelmed and panicky since giving birth to her first child, Luke, two months prior. She'd obsessed so much about getting feedings and naps "right" that she stopped eating and sleeping herself. She cried continuously. She started throwing up.
Her doctor had prescribed medication for postpartum anxiety. But, she told her husband, the day before, she'd found herself at the wheel of her red Chevy Impala, rain falling in sheets from the sky, thinking, If I drive my car off the road, all this will go away.
"I was stunned," recalls Kevin Machos. "She'd done a very good job of hiding what she was feeling."
Immediately, Meehan-Machos's obstetrician referred her to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). There, doctors had recently debuted a groundbreaking inpatient psychiatric unit, the first in the nation specifically tailored to women suffering perinatal (prenatal and postpartum) mood disorders. Unlike a general psychiatric unit, it offered:
A core group of doctors specializing in perinatal issues
Psychiatrists attuned to medications that wouldn't harm a pregnancy or a nursing newborn
An unusual policy of allowing children, even babies, on the ward during extended visiting hours
Mom-only counseling focused on anxiety and bonding.
And though there were only six beds, one was available for her.
Postpartum depression (PPD) is the most common complication of childbirth, striking approximately 15 percent of new mothers each year. Most of these don't need intensive intervention; standard treatments include counseling and medication. But there are severe cases: women swallowed up by anxiety, who, despite the exhaustion of a newborn, can't sleep. Women who can't stop obsessing over the terrible things that might happen to their babies, or who think about hurting their children -- or themselves.
"Maybe this is one percent or maybe it's five percent of affected moms," says Elizabeth Bullard, M.D., medical director of the new Perinatal Mood Disorders Inpatient Program at UNC. "The number is still larger than the number of women getting inpatient treatment."
There are many possible reasons for this. Experts agree, for example, that PPD is under-reported. But another factor might be that hospitalization can seem like a pretty scary idea. Especially considering that moms requiring or requesting it have had only one option: general psychiatric wards, the same locked units that care for drug addicts, schizophrenics, and patients with bipolar or eating disorders.