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Outpatient program takes aim at 'baby blues'

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Hayley Hinkle, right, Her husband: Tim Hinkle, left and their son, Brayden
Hayley Hinkle, right, Her husband: Tim Hinkle, left and their son, Brayden

Uncontrollable sadness and anxiety blindsided Hayley Hinkle shortly after her son's birth: She cried constantly, couldn't sleep, lost her appetite and felt insecure in her ability to parent.

“I felt like I wasn't in control of myself,” she said. “I felt like a bad mom, like I didn't know what I was doing.”

Hinkle was familiar with the term “baby blues” but didn't know much about postpartum depression and the dark places it can take women.

Fortunately, Hinkle, 27, of Munhall sought help before her symptoms spiraled too far. She called her OB-GYN doctor at Allegheny Health Network's West Penn Hospital, and its staff immediately came to her aid.

Through subsequent therapy and antidepressant medication, Hinkle regained her mental footing. Now her son, Brayden, is 14 months old, and she and her husband, Tim, are in a comfortable place. The crisis is over.

“Postpartum depression is a very real thing,” Hinkle said. “But other mothers who find themselves in the same position need to ask for help. Just like my clinician told me, ‘It's not your fault.' ”

Between 11 percent and 20 percent of women who give birth each year have postpartum depression symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This week, AHN opens the region's first intensive outpatient program for women suffering from the condition. Mothers seeking help there will visit three times a week for three-hour sessions of therapy, evaluation, group counseling, yoga and meditation.

Doctors will encourage mothers to bring their babies with them, giving experts the chance to observe mother-child interaction and offer reassurance. Spouses also are invited to participate.

Dr. Sarah Homitsky, director of the women's perinatal psychiatry program at West Penn Hospital, will help run the program along with Rebecca Weinberg, an AHN clinical psychologist specializing in women's behavioral health.

Perinatal depression includes major and minor depressive episodes, occurring during pregnancy or in the first year after delivery.

“This program is directed toward mothers with more severe depression, such as suicidal thoughts,” Homitsky said. “It's extremely important to provide closer observation and rapidly changing treatment plans depending on symptoms.”

There's no reason for women to suffer for long periods of time, Weinberg said. However, stigmas attached to mental-health problems and maternal guilt often work as barriers to seeking treatment.

“There's an overriding assumption that new mothers should automatically be happy after giving birth,” Weinberg said. “A lot of mothers feel guilty when they don't feel that way.”

She said 80 percent of new mothers experience some form of “baby blues,” be it unbalanced emotion or anxiety.

“Most of those symptoms disappear within two weeks,” Weinberg said. “If they persist, we start to consider a diagnosis of depression.”

A formal name for the new outpatient program has not yet been chosen.

Administrators are hopeful it can evolve next year into a partial hospitalization unit for women with perinatal depression.

Grant money from the Alexis Joy D'Achille Foundation, Highmark Foundation, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Staunton Farm Foundation helped provide seed money for the program.

Hinkle said AHN's commitment to helping women like her will make a difference throughout the region.

“When I look back on my ordeal, I'm so thankful that the clinicians and staff took me serious from day one,” she said. “I want other women to know that recovery won't come overnight. But with the right help, you can get there.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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