On Thursday afternoon, there were reports of shots fired at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, and much of the surrounding area went into lockdown. It turned out that the gunshots came only from the police, who were engaged in a high-speed chase with a woman who slammed into a security barricade near the White House and struck several cop cars with her vehicle. Her one-year-old child was in the backseat of the car. The woman was killed in the altercation with the police.
On Friday, multiple outlets began reporting that the alleged woman in question, 34-year-old Miriam Carey from Connecticut, was suffering from post-partum depression. Carey’s mother told ABC News that Carey started experiencing mental health issues after giving birth to her daughter last August. “A few months later, she got sick. She was depressed. … She was hospitalized,” Carey’s mother said.
It’s unclear whether Carey was seeking any treatment for her depression. Her mother said she didn’t have any previous history of violence.
Sadly, Carey’s mental health struggles are all-too-common among U.S. women — although many people don’t openly talk about it. In March, a sweeping study on mothers in Pittsburgh found that an estimated one in seven women suffer from post-partum depression. Earlier studies have estimated that up to about 20 percent of new mothers may suffer from “frequent” symptoms of depression. But most of those women go unidentified and untreated.
“The vast majority of postpartum women with depression are not identified or treated even though they are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders,” lead author Dr. Katherine Wisner, who researches depression at Northwestern University, explained right after the results from March’s study were published. “A lot of women do not understand what is happening to them. They think they’re just stressed or they believe it is how having a baby is supposed to feel.”
Wisner considers Americans’ reluctance to identify post-partum depression to be a “huge public health problem.” Her research has found that about 20 percent of women who suffer from post-partum depression have suicidal thoughts.
A big part of the reason that American mothers don’t seek help for their depression is that they’re too ashamed to admit they feel any negative emotions after giving birth. In a society where having a baby is supposed to be the ultimate fulfillment of womanhood, talking about any potential negativity that may result from childbearing is often strictly taboo. Many women don’t bring up their mental health struggles because they don’t want to be labeled as a bad mother.
And, of course, even outside of the specific cultural assumptions about motherhood, mental health treatment in general still carries a significant stigma. “I think we still in this country really do not recognize mental health issues — we still have that Puritan, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, be-tough attitude,” June Horowitz, a postpartum depression researcher and professor of nursing at Boston College, explained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It should be the gold standard that everyone gets screened for post-partum depression.”
Post-partum depression is an even bigger issue for the women whose pregnancies aren’t planned. Women who aren’t entirely in control of their reproductive futures and end up carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term are up to 12 percent more likely to suffer from post-partum depression, and they’re also at greater risk to struggle with their long-term mental health. It’s unsurprising, then, that these type of mental health issues disproportionately affect low-income women, who tend to have less access to family planning services and a much higher rate of unintended pregnancy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed some materials to help de-stigmatize mental health issues among women of reproductive age. “Many women feel this way…you are not alone,” the agency tells women in a fact sheet about post-partum depression. “There are treatments to help you feel better. Talk to your doctor so you can feel like yourself again.”