The Importance of Maternal Mental Health
The month of May is not only a celebration of all Mother’s, but it is also known as Maternal Mental Health month. In honor of Maternal Mental Health month, I want to express the significance of perinatal mental health for all mothers. With extensive biological, hormonal, and social changes mother’s experience, every mother to be and mother should have access to adequate mental health services. Perinatal mental health is defined as a woman’s mental health during and post pregnancy (Maternal Mental Health Task Force). Last month, a story was shared with me about a mother, Danezja Kilpatrick, who gave birth to twins, Dakota and Dallis Bentley. Unfortunately, the deaths of both Dakota and Dallis tragically ended six weeks after they were born (https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2021/04/24/queens-twins-dead/ ). This story has sparked a debate on social media as to whether Danezja suffered from postpartum psychosis. At the time of this blog post this case remains under further investigation, with Ms. Kilpatrick’s court date set for later this month. My aim is not to debate what happened in this case, instead, I want to shed light to possible risk factors that may have led Danezja Kilpatrick to experience postpartum psychosis.
According to several news articles, Danezja Kilpatrick, a 23-year-old mother, lived alone in public housing, and had a history of psychiatric episodes. These three facts raise serious concerns in terms of what Ms. Kilpatrick may have experienced during her pregnancy and thereafter. From a biological standpoint, mothers experience a whirlwind of emotional and hormonal imbalances from the time a baby is conceived and several months after. For instance, estrogen and progesterone hormones play vital roles in the perinatal period. During pregnancy, estrogen provides balance to mothers by keeping their other hormones in check. However, once the baby is born estrogen levels drastically drop which can have the most mentally stable mother feeling out of sorts, even more so if she is breastfeeding. Similarly, progesterone which is responsible for the euphoria mothers feel while pregnant significantly declines in the fourth trimester. As such, it is common for mothers to feel out of touch with themselves due to the hormonal imbalance caused by low progesterone levels.
As I consider Ms. Kilpatrck’s case, I am struck by so many “what if” questions. I believe Ms. Kilpatrick’s mental health may have been manageable had she had access to a perinatal mental health professional. The article stated that Danezja had a known psychiatric history. My initial question, was her medical team aware she struggled with mental health? If so, what type of mental health treatment was she offered before, during and after pregnancy? Perhaps, Danezja did not indicate to her medical team she had any prior psychotic episodes. In the event the medical professionals were aware of her mental illness, what did her mental health treatment plan look like? Was Ms. Kilpatrick educated about the possibility of increased emotional and mental shifts she may encounter because of hormonal changes? Did anyone assist Ms. Kilpatrick with identifying possible supports in the event she experienced a mental health crisis? Did Danezja have access to adequate and knowledgeable mental health professionals with insight about perinatal mental health? So many questions continue to arise as I think about Danezja and how the death of her children could have been prevented.
When a mother becomes pregnant there tends to be a lot of excitement and preparation around baby showers, finding the perfect baby name, and designing the nursery. While these occurrences are fun and necessary, oftentimes moms are too fatigued to think about their new life once they return home with their newborn. Even if the mother cannot plan for what happens when she and baby are at home, many mother’s have at least identified people within their support system to help them plan for the fourth trimester.
From what I gathered from the New York CBS article, Danezja lived alone and it is troublesome to think of what her return home was actually like for her. Was Danezja fortunate to have family and friends awaiting the arrival of she and the twins when they returned home from the hospital? Returning home to care for one newborn at a time is a task within itself. Imagine caring for twins and yourself with little to no support at home, while experiencing uterine bleeding and pain. I mean, who fixed Danezja’s favorite home cooked meals to help her heal? Who relieved Danezja when she needed to take a shower or pee? When did Ms. Kilpatrick sleep, and did she have help feeding both babies? Did she have a trusted friend or family member to talk candidly with when she felt overwhelmed? I ask these questions to paint a picture of what Danezja Kilpatrick most likely did not have to show how all these factors may have contributed to her having a psychotic break.
To my readers, I charge you all to check in with your pregnant colleague’s, family members, friends and neighbors from the time they share they are pregnant at least through their first year postpartum. If you are not sure what to ask, see the list below to jumpstart the conversation.
Perinatal Support Questions
1. How are you honestly feeling today?
2. Have you eaten today? I’ll order something for you, what do you feel like eating?
3. What do you need and how can I help?
4. When was the last time you slept? (If you live in the area maybe you can visit and do light cleaning, cooking, or watch the baby so Mom can sleep)
5. Are you feeling any unusual stress due to finances, lack of support, motherhood, etc.? If you’re ready to talk I am available to listen.
Lastly, may Dakota and Dallis Bentley rest peacefully. I offer prayers to their mother, Danezja Kilpatrick, family and friends who are grieving the loss of both babies and their mother.
2. Johnson, Kimberly Ann. The Fourth Trimester. Boulder, CO. Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2017.